Journalists imprisoned by the Ortega regime regain their freedom, but outside their homeland and with an uncertain future ahead of them

Nicaraguan journalists critical of Daniel Ortega's regime who remained imprisoned and whose release had been demanded by colleagues, international bodies and human rights organizations since their arrests in 2021 were finally freed.

But with freedom came banishment. At least six journalists and media entrepreneurs and two journalism students were on the list of 222 political prisoners that on Thurs., February 9, the Ortega government released and sent on a flight to the United States to face an uncertain future.

Cristiana Chamorro, vice-president of the newspaper La Prensa and former presidential candidate; her brother, journalist and politician Pedro Joaquín Chamorro; Juan Lorenzo Holmann, general manager of the same newspaper; Miguel Mora, founder of the channel 100% Noticias; Miguel Mendoza, journalist and sports reporter; and Jaime Arellano, political commentator, are among the group of political prisoners released and banished to the U.S.

Also in this group were Lesther Alemán, student leader and journalism school graduate; and Samantha Padilla Jirón, activist and journalism student. They joined businessmen, human rights defenders, students, and activists who were in jails or under house arrest for alleged crimes for opposing the Ortega government.

Since the night of Fri., Feb. 8, journalists and human rights defenders noticed unusual movements in Nicaragua's main prisons. In the early hours of Thurs., Feb. 9, it was learned that some prisoners were being transferred by bus to unknown destinations.

"We assumed they might be released. But, well, the surprise was that it was more of a banishment," Lucía Pineda, press chief for 100% Noticias — who was also imprisoned for criticizing the Ortega regime, but was released in June 2019 as part of an amnesty — told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). “We really thought they were going to be released because of all those movements they were doing in all the cells in the country. The regime decided to release them, when it had said it was not going to do so.”

In a document dated Feb. 8 issued by the First Chamber of the Court of Appeals of Managua, "the immediate deportation" of persons "who violated the legal and constitutional order, threatening the State of Nicaragua and Nicaraguan society" was ordered. In the document appears the list with the names and identification numbers of the 222 former political prisoners.

In the early morning of Feb. 9, the political prisoners were put on several buses and taken to the Augusto C. Sandino airport in Managua. A U.S. charter plane Omni Air had landed at 2:37 a.m. on Thurs. in Managua, coming from Norfolk, Virginia. The political prisoners boarded the plane, which took off at 6:31 a.m. bound for Washington-Dulles Airport. Neither the prisoners nor their families were notified of the banishment.

"We had no idea. A day earlier we were told to change clothes and clean up. They covered for us on the route, we only realized [that we would be leaving the country] when we were on the plane," Suyen Barahona, activist and president of the organization Unamos, told La Prensa newspaper.

It was only before boarding the plane that the political prisoners were informed by personnel from the US Embassy in Nicaragua that they would be taken to Washington DC. They were asked to sign a document in which they voluntarily accepted the trip, according to what Juan Sebastián Chamorro, opposition leader and former pre-candidate for the presidency of Nicaragua, told the press a few hours after their arrival in the U.S. capital.

During the flight, with identification number OAE37, the released prisoners were reunited with colleagues and comrades in fight who had been in different prisons. Juan Sebastián Chamorro said that they even sang the Nicaraguan National Anthem several times as they flew away from their homeland.

Omni Air aircraft that carried 222 political prisoners from Nicaragua to Washington DC.

The Nicaraguan political prisoners boarded an Omni Air plane that took off at 6:31 am from Managua bound for Washington-Dulles. (Photo: Screenshot of Confidencial on YouTube / Creative Commons)

Upon their arrival in Washington D.C., the former political prisoners were taken to a hotel, where they underwent a medical check-up, were given legal guidance and were interrogated by U.S. intelligence agencies, according to the digital news outlet Divergentes. The 222 Nicaraguans will be granted a humanitarian visa that will allow them to live and work in the United States for two years, during which time they may apply for asylum if they wish.

The release of the 222 political prisoners was the result of "concerted diplomacy" by the U.S. government, said Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, in a statement. However, Ortega said that same Thursday on national television that it had been his wife and vice-president of Nicaragua's idea, Rosario Murillo, to ask the US ambassador to take away "all those terrorists."

Although the Ortega regime claims that it has no intention of negotiating with the United States, Blinken said that the release of these prisoners opens the door to dialogue between the two nations and that President Biden's administration will continue to seek to support the Nicaraguan people.

According to Nicaraguan journalists, the decision to release political prisoners is due more to the economic sanctions imposed on the Ortega regime and international pressure.

"Daniel Ortega handed over all the negotiating chips with the political prisoners because he is desperate in the face of the sanctions. The United States had spoken to him quite clearly: If there is no release of prisoners, no door is open for dialogue," Pineda said. “Ortega said there is no negotiation, but there is a very strong choking inside the regime.”

For Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli, the events have to do with the condemnation that thousands of people and organizations around the world have strongly expressed against human rights abuses by the Ortega and Murillo government.

"We don't know exactly what the release of the prisoners on Feb. 9 achieved. The United States claims it was a unilateral action by the regime; I think international pressure was effective," Belli wrote in a column for El País. "It is a factor of hope to know that the community of nations can act in concert to corral those who try to impose their injustices."

Cristiana Chamorro had been sentenced to eight years in prison for alleged "abusive management and money laundering" in relation to the management of her foundation. The journalist had been serving her sentence incommunicado under house arrest since her arrest in June 2021.

His brother, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, also arrested in 2021, was sentenced to nine years in prison for the same alleged crimes. In May 2022, he was granted house arrest due to his ill health.

Juan Lorenzo Holmann received a nine-year prison sentence on alleged money laundering charges. He was serving his sentence in the prison of the Dirección de Auxilio Judicial, better known as "El Chipote," a facility that has lodged multiple complaints of torture and abuse.

In the same prison were his colleagues Miguel Mora, sentenced to 13 years in prison for the alleged crime of "conspiracy to undermine national integrity," and Miguel Mendoza, sentenced to nine years in prison for the same alleged crime, in addition to "disseminating false news."

For his part, Jaime Arellano was serving under house arrest — and with multiple health-related issues — a 13-year sentence for allegedly "conspiring to undermine national integrity." Lesther Alemán was sentenced to 13 years in prison for the same alleged offense after confronting president Ortega and urging him to surrender in the face of the 2018 social protests.

Samantha Padilla Jirón remained in the Women's Penitentiary System La Esperanza sentenced to eight years also for the alleged crime of "conspiracy to undermine national integrity" and for "spreading false news."

In addition to the imprisonment of journalists and media entrepreneurs, in the 16 years that Ortega has been in power, his regime has closed news outlets and raided the facilities of others. It has even taken over buildings belonging to some of those news outlets, all in an attempt to silence critical voices.

"The release of political prisoners, even if it is by way of exile, is reason for joy for all Nicaraguans [...]. But it is a step and we as journalists must continue to denounce each of the lawless acts that continue to be committed, such as taking away the citizenship of political prisoners under the false accusation that they are traitors to the homeland. They are innocent," Octavio Enriquez, journalist of the digital news outlet Confidencial and member of the journalism platform CONNECTAS, told LJR. "We must keep up the fight and we must continue to report and document. Political prisoners are a symbol of the struggle for freedom. They spoke with their example and never buckled, despite pressure and mistreatment."

Stripped of citizenship... but holding new passports

Most of the 222 people who left Nicaragua on Thurs., Feb. 9, did not learn until their arrival in Washington D.C. that the authorities in their country had decided to cancel their citizenship rights and Nicaraguan nationality.

A few hours after the departure of the Omni Air plane, Octavio Rothschuh, president of Criminal Chamber One of the Court of Appeals of Managua, read to the media the "deportation sentence" which declared the 222 persons as "traitors to the homeland," permanently disqualifying them from holding any public office and suspending their citizenship rights for life.

On the same Thursday, the National Assembly of Nicaragua initiated an express process to reform article 21 of the Constitution of that country in order to establish the loss of Nicaraguan nationality to anyone who is considered a "traitor to the homeland".

The reform, which was approved with 89 votes out of 91, establishes that individuals who violate Law 1055 of Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace will lose their Nicaraguan citizenship.

However, according to Pineda, who was in contact with several of the freed Nicaraguans after their arrival in the United States, the 222 passengers on the plane received a new Nicaraguan passport valid for 10 years when they disembarked from the aircraft.

"When they set foot on U.S. soil, they were handed [their passport] one by one. They were really surprised because they thought, 'When did they process my passport?'" Pineda told LJR.

"Ortega released them and said they are not Nicaraguans, but he did give them the document, a passport that says they are Nicaraguans," Pineda said. "He said that this constitutional reform they made determines that those who are sentenced for treason lose their Nicaraguan citizenship, but the same state gives you a passport to banish you. So you see something there that doesn't make sense."

Nicaraguan journalist Lucía Pineda speaks at the Coloquio Iberoamericano de Periodismo Digital.

100% Noticias journalist Lucía Pineda spoke with some of the released prisoners after their arrival in the U.S. (Photo: Patricia Lim/ Knight Center).

Even after the release and banishment of political prisoners, the regime continues to violate their rights, according to organizations such as the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH, by its Spanish acronym), which stated that deportation is a concept applicable only for foreigners and that the reform to strip the [political] opponents of their nationality is illegal.

"It is completely absurd this hasty, illegal and contradictory decision to reform relevant articles of the Constitution, a reform that would go into effect after it is approved in the second legislature that begins on Jan. 9, 2024," the organization said in a statement. "No Nicaraguan can be deprived of his or her nationality. We hope that the regime does not have time to formally implement this irascible reform."

The Organization of American States (OAS) celebrated the arrival on U.S. soil of the 222 Nicaraguans. It pointed out that the crimes committed against these people should not go unpunished and that their rights should be restored as soon as possible.

"The release of these political prisoners is also a demonstration that international pressure is essential in dealing with dictatorships," the organization said in a statement. "What happened today is not, however, a ‘liberation.’ These people were unjustly imprisoned — some for years — for thinking, expressing, or writing opinions contrary to the prevailing regime in Nicaragua. Many of them were tortured and cut off from all contact with the outside world."

On the other hand, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the release of Nicaragua's political prisoners, including journalists, leaves behind a sense of relief, although their safety after unjust and prolonged imprisonment and mistreatment must remain a top priority.

"Nicaraguan authorities must guarantee the safety of the released prisoners and their families, stop prosecuting and harassing reporters, and guarantee that the media can report without fear of detention or forced exile," said Carlos Martínez de la Serna, CPJ's program director in New York.

The organization Periodistas y Comunicadores Independientes de Nicaragua (PCIN) expressed its satisfaction that their released colleagues are no longer in torture centers and can finally communicate with their families.

"We condemn the unwarranted action of the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo to strip away the nationality of these people," the organization said in a statement through its social networks. "We congratulate our group of colleagues who exemplify a communication and journalism work that does not renounce the truth and has not remained silent in the face of the systematic violations of human rights in our country."

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) also expressed relief for the release of journalists Juan Lorenzo Holmann -who served as regional vice-president of the organization-, Cristiana and Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, Miguel Mora, Miguel Mendoza, and Jaime Arellano.

"Although we are encouraged by the release of the prisoners, we repudiate that the regime has deported them and declared them traitors for exercising their right to freedom of expression and dissenting from the government," said the chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Carlos Jornet, in a statement.

On the morning of Fri., Feb. 10, Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said that the Spanish government was offering Spanish nationality to the 222 released political prisoners. The offer, he said, is also for political prisoners still in Nicaraguan jails.

Banner photos: Confidencial / Creative Commons, Twitter