Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega faces mounting international criticism after four potential presidential contenders were detained during the past week, prompting United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday to call for their release.
On Tuesday, Juan Sebastian Chamorro Garcia was the latest opposition leader to be arrested, hours after Felix Maradiaga was detained.
Chamorro Garcia, the cousin of another detained presidential hopeful Cristiana Chamorro – seen as a favourite to beat Ortega in a November vote – was arrested on Tuesday on allegations of “inciting foreign interference in internal affairs”.
He is also accused of using “funding from foreign powers” to plan “to perpetrate terrorist acts”, according to a police statement.
Four opposition political leaders have been detained since last week in Nicaragua, spurring growing criticism that Ortega is becoming increasingly authoritarian and seeking to sideline his opponents from running in the upcoming elections.
A spokesman for Guterres told reporters on Wednesday that the UN secretary-general is calling on the Nicaraguan authorities to fully respect their international human rights obligations and release the political leaders.
“These developments can seriously undermine the public’s confidence in the democratic process ahead of the November general elections,” Stephane Dujarric said.
Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, also on Twitter urged the release of Chamorro Garcia “and all other political prisoners in #Nicaragua”.
He added: “The harassment and oppression of the dictatorship of … Daniel Ortega must stop. Nicaragua deserves to be free and democratic.”
The clampdown started a week ago when Cristiana Chamorro, a journalist not affiliated with a political party, was placed under house arrest on allegations of money laundering, widely seen as trumped up.
Chamorro’s mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, defeated Ortega in the 1990 presidential elections.
Then, on Saturday, 67-year-old Arturo Cruz was ordered held in pre-trial detention as prosecutors investigate allegations of “provocation … and conspiracy to commit harm to national integrity”.
Cruz announced his presidential candidacy two months ago with the conservative Citizen Alliance for Freedom party.
Authorities also arrested well-known businessman Jose Aguerri and human rights activist Violeta Granera on similar charges to those levied against Maradiaga and Chamorro Garcia on Tuesday night, according to police.
Former Costa Rica president Laura Chinchilla tweeted that “it is a Night of the Long Knives, tropical version”.
Maradiaga is a candidate with a non-parliamentary UNAB opposition group that backed protests against Ortega that have resulted in 328 deaths and thousands of exile since 2018, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Chamorro Garcia and Aguerri, in turn, are members of the ACJD alliance negotiating with the government to end the demonstrations.
“It has become clear, including in the past few days alone, that under President Ortega, Nicaragua is becoming an international pariah, moving farther away from democracy,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a news conference.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, the US announced sanctions against four Nicaraguan officials who support Ortega, including the president’s daughter, accusing them of undermining democracy and abusing human rights.
“President Ortega’s actions are harming Nicaraguans and driving the country deeper into tyranny,” said Andrea Gacki, director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
“The United States will continue to expose those officials who continue to ignore the will of its citizens.”
Ortega spent a decade in power after leading rebels who deposed Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He returned to office in 2007, winning re-election in 2011 and 2016, but his recent rule has been marked by widespread protests.
Now 75, he has been accused by the opposition and NGOs of increasing authoritarianism and the brutal suppression of demonstrations. He is widely expected to run in November elections though he has not said so.
The European Union and the US maintain sanctions against Ortega and his government.
Ortega’s wife and deputy president, Rosaria Murillo, on Tuesday said “justice comes late, but it comes”, as she railed against “this bunch of thieves, not only thieves but also terrorists, criminals”.
Last month, Nicaragua’s legislature appointed a majority of governing party-aligned magistrates to the election body that will oversee the election.