MEXICO CITY – The wife of Nicaraguan political activist Félix Maradiaga told journalists her husband had lost more than 65 pounds during his year in prison and she feared for his health.
A day later, the government of President Daniel Ortega hauled the former potential presidential challenger before cameras for a previously unscheduled and unusual hearing to ratify the 13-year prison sentence he had already received earlier this year.
The fact that a pro-government news outlet was invited, but not Maradiaga’s family — or attorneys — showed the Sandista-led government is intent on challenging international condemnation of its sweeping crackdown on dissidents. Images from the weekend appearance showed that Maradiaga was thin, but appeared to walk and speak without difficulty.
Maradiaga had not been seen publicly since his arrest in June 2021 — one of the nearly 190 people who are considered political prisoners by human rights groups and the U.S. State Department, including six others who could have challenged Ortega for the presidency in the election last November. None of them had been seen in images or video since their arrests until Maradiaga’s brief court appearance Saturday.
“The government put on a show, a scene of public torture transmitted live to the people” with the goal of instilling more fear, said Vilma Nuñez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. She herself is a former political prisoner under the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, who Ortega helped drive from office in 1979.
The United States and European Union have called for the release of the prisoners and denounced Ortega’s November election victory as a farce. They have imposed sanctions on members of his family and inner circle, but his government has continued making arrests while driving independent press and nongovernmental groups from the country, most recently last week the nuns of the charity established by Mother Teresa.
Jared Genser, a U.S.-based law professor and prominent human rights attorney who represents Maradiaga and Juan Sebastián Chamorro, said in an online news conference Thursday with Maradiaga's wife and relatives of other prisoners that the situation of political prisoners in Nicaragua is among the worst he has seen during his career.
Maradiaga’s wife, Berta Valle, said at the conference that her husband and others are kept in unhealthy cells, given bad food and deprived of medical attention for chronic illnesses. They are not given reading material or allowed visits with their children, she said.
“Our relatives feel that they are doing damage to his health that could be irreversible,” Valle said. She herself fled to the United States and has been told of his condition by two siblings who have sometimes been able to visit him.
Núñez said that among the most troubling aspects for the family is the lack of communication. She said the “information limbo” creates “desperation and anguish.”
Valle said she hadn't known about Saturday's hearing for her husband before seeing a video of it. And she said last week that she had not even known her husband had started a hunger strike a week earlier to protest the conditions of his imprisonment.
Maradiaga was convicted of harm to the national integrity, a charge applied to many other dissidents as well. He denies the allegation.
Following Saturday's court appearance, a reporter from a government-allied news outlet put a microphone to Maradiaga and asked why he was “lying” about his health. Maradiaga appeared confused by the question and unaware that outside the prison there was a public debate about his well-being.
He responded that he was being held in total isolation and had been subjected to a political trial.
Renata Holmann, daughter of Juan Lorenzo Holmann, the jailed manager of the newspaper La Prensa, said Thursday that he suffered from chronic illnesses and additional health problems acquired in prison since his arrest last August.
“The are killing them little by little, day by day,” she said of the imprisoned dissidents.
In May 2019, opposition member Eddy Montes was shot dead by a prison guard during what the government said was a riot. In February, Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader who turned Ortega critic, died in a Managua hospital while imprisoned.