Nicaragua released 222 political prisoners early Thursday in a deal negotiated with Washington, marking one of the biggest prisoner releases ever involving the United States, according to senior Biden administration officials with knowledge of the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly about a sensitive matter.
The Nicaraguan government sought nothing in return, the officials said, but agreed to release the prisoners as a way to signal a desire to restart relations with the United States.
The Biden administration has imposed sanctions on the government and the family of President Daniel Ortega as the country has slid into autocratic rule and targeted its opponents in civil society, the church and the news media.
A total of 224 political prisoners were offered refuge in the United States, but two declined.
The American government sent a chartered flight to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, which took off at about 7:45 a.m. E.S.T. to take the prisoners to Washington, where the plane was expected to land at about noon local time.
Many of the prisoners had been arrested over the last few years for their political dissent against the Ortega family with many sentenced to prison or house arrest in what critics and family members called sham trials.
Some of the prisoners experienced horrific treatment inside Nicaraguan detention centers many family members said, denied treatment for longstanding medical conditions or given little to eat. At least one of them died in captivity.
One of those traveling to the United States was Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, a journalist who was a leading contender in Nicaragua’s presidential elections held in 2021.
Just months before the elections, Ms. Chamorro was disqualified as a candidate. Government forces then raided her home and detained her minutes before she was scheduled to give a news conference to speak about her disqualification and criticize the government’s interference in the polls.
The American government will provide medical and legal assistance to the former prisoners arriving in Washington, according to the U.S. officials. They will then be reunited with their families, many of whom live in the United States, having also fled political repression in Nicaragua.
For Carlos Fernando Chamorro Barrios, the news could not have come as more of a surprise. Beside his sister, Cristiana, his brother, Pedro Joaquín, was also freed on Thursday. Both had been jailed for their opposition to the Ortega family and Mr. Chamorro had expected to possibly never see them again.
“Today a long day of torture and cruelty against the best sons of Nicaragua has ended,” said Mr. Chamorro, who fled shortly after his brother and sister were imprisoned in 2021. This “is the first step toward freedom for all of Nicaragua,’’ he added. “All prisoners of conscience are innocent. They were convicted in spurious trials for fabricated crimes and have now been banished.”
“Ortega must suspend the police state in Nicaragua,” Mr. Chamorro added.