MEXICO CITY – Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, an outspoken critic of Nicaragua’s government, was sentenced to 26 years in prison and stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship Friday, the latest move by President Daniel Ortega against the Catholic church and his opponents.
A day after he refused to get on a flight to the United States with 222 other prisoners, all opponents of Ortega, a judge sentenced Álvarez for undermining the government, spreading false information, obstruction of functions and disobedience, according to a government statement published in official outlets.
The sentence handed down by Octavio Ernesto Rothschuh, chief magistrate of the Managua appeals court, is the longest given to any of Ortega's opponents over the last couple years.
Álvarez was arrested in August along with several other priests and lay people. When Ortega ordered the mass release of political leaders, priests, students and activists widely considered political prisoners and had some of them put on a flight to Washington Thursday, Alvarez refused to board without being able to consult with other bishops, Ortega said.
Nicaragua's president called Álvarez's refusal “an absurd thing." Álvarez, who had been held under house arrest, was then taken to the nearby Modelo prison.
Álvarez had been one of the most outspoken religious figures still in Nicaragua as Ortega intensified his repression of the opposition.
Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the sentence. Reached by the AP, Managua vicar Mons. Carlos Avilés said he hadn't heard anything official. “Maybe tomorrow.”
The church is essentially the last independent institution trusted by a large portion of Nicaraguans and that makes it a threat to Ortega's increasingly authoritarian rule.
Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Álvarez's sentence “constitutes the most severe repression against the Catholic Church in Latin America since the assassination of Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi in 1998.”
“Since first becoming the ruling party in 1979 the Sandinistas have repressed the Catholic Church like few other regimes in Latin America,” Chesnut said. “Pope Francis has refrained from criticizing President Ortega for fear of inflaming the situation, but many believe that now is the time for him to speak out prophetically in defense of the most persecuted Church in Latin America.”
Monsignor Silvio Báez, the former outspoken Managua auxiliary bishop who was recalled to the Vatican in 2019, said on Twitter “the Nicaraguan dictatorship’s hatred toward Mons. Rolando Álvarez is irrational and out of control.”
Álvarez, the bishop of Matagalpa about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Managua, has been a key religious voice in discussions of Nicaragua’s future since 2018, when a wave of protests against Ortega’s government led to a sweeping crackdown on opponents.
When the protests first erupted, Ortega asked the church to serve as mediator in peace talks.
On April 20, 2018, hundreds of student protesters sought refuge at Managua’s cathedral. When police and Sandinista Youth descended, the students retreated inside, leaving only after clergy negotiated their safe passage.
“We hope there would be a series of electoral reforms, structural changes to the electoral authority — free, just and transparent elections, international observation without conditions,” Álvarez said a month after the protests broke out. “Effectively the democratization of the country.”
By that summer, the Church was under attack by Ortega's supporters.
A pro-government mob shoved, punched and scratched at Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and other Catholic leaders as they tried to enter the Basilica San Sebastian in Diriamba on July 9, 2018.
For nearly 15 hours overnight on July 13-14, 2018, armed government backers fired on a church in Managua while 155 student protesters who had been dislodged from a nearby university lay under the pews. A student who was shot in the head at a barricade outside died on the rectory floor.
More recently, Ortega has accused the Church of being in on an alleged foreign-backed plot to depose him.
Last summer, the government seized several radio stations owned by the diocese. At the time, it appeared Ortega’s administration wanted to silence critical voices ahead of municipal elections.
The Holy See has been largely silent on the situation in Nicaragua, believing that any public denunciation will only inflame tensions further between the government and the local church.
The Vatican’s last comment came in August when Pope Francis expressed concern about the raid of Álvarez's residence and called for dialogue.
Earlier this week, judges sentenced five other Catholic priests to prison. They were all aboard Thursday's flight.
Before the sentence was announced Friday, Emily Mendrala, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said “we see yesterday’s event as a positive step that could put the (bilateral) relationship on a more constructive trajectory.” But she added that “we still have concerns with the human rights situation and the situation with democracy in Nicaragua.”
The State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone Friday with Nicaragua Foreign Minister Denis Moncada about the prisoners’ release and “the importance of constructive dialogue between the United States to build a better future for the Nicaraguan people.” Presumably the conversation occurred before Álvarez’s sentence was announced.
Vilma Núñez, director of the Nicaragua Center for Human Rights, which had been supporting prisoners in their cases, called the sentence “arbitrary and last minute,” noting that it included crimes that were not part of his original conviction.
“The personal well-being and life of the Monsignor is in danger,” Núñez said.
After expelling nearly all of his most vocal critics, Ortega found himself stuck with the bishop in a still heavily Catholic country.
“The Catholic Church, I think, is one of the main institutions that the Ortega regime really, really fears,” Antonio Garrastazu, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute in Washington, said before the the sentencing. “The Catholic Church are really the ones that can actually change the hearts and minds of the people.”
Prior to the release of prisoners, sanctions and public criticism of Ortega had been building for months, but both United States and Nicaraguan officials say the decision to put 222 dissidents on a plane to Washington came suddenly.
The majority had been sentenced in the past couple years to lengthy prison terms. The release came together in a couple of days and the prisoners had no idea what was happening until their buses turned into Managua’s international airport.
“I think the pressure, the political pressure of the prisoners, the political prisoners became important to the Ortega regime, even for the people, the Sandinista people who were tired of abuses,” opposition leader Juan Sebastian Chamorro, who was among those released, said during a press conference Friday. “I think (Ortega) wanted to basically send the opposition outside of the country into exile.”
In Ortega’s mind, they are terrorists. Funded by foreign governments, they worked to destabilize his government after huge street protests broke out in April 2018, he maintains.
Ortega said Vice President Rosario Murillo, his wife, first came to him with the idea of expelling the prisoners.
“Rosario says to me, ‘Why don’t we tell the ambassador to take all of these terrorists,’” Ortega recounted in a rambling speech Thursday night. In a matter of days, it was done.
AP reporters Gisela Salomon in Miami, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain and Nicole Winfield in Rome and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.