© Reuters. Juan Sebastian Chamorro, one of the more than 200 freed political prisoners from Nicaragua, speaks to reporters after arriving in the United States at Dulles International Airport near Washington, U.S., February 9, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
By Daina Beth Solomon
(Reuters) – Nicaraguan opposition leader Juan Sebastian Chamorro on Friday recounted his whirlwind trip to Washington from Managua’s El Chipote prison this week after he was pulled from his cell in the middle of the night and pushed into a bus.
Instead of a transfer to another prison as he expected, the former presidential hopeful was put on a plane with 221 other prominent government critics and flown to Washington.
“It was at that moment (as the bus turned into the airport) that I realized – we all realized – that we were not going to the Modelo prison, but outside the country,” Chamorro told an online news conference. “We were not told until we got to the runway.”
One year and eight months after his arrest, he was free.
“It was a bittersweet kind of moment, leaving the country on that plane, leaving Nicaragua, but at the same time, being free,” he said.
The flight, which all but two released prisoners agreed to take, marked an end to a long period of uncertainty around Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s plans for his high-profile imprisoned critics.
Many of the presidential contenders, business leaders, journalists, student activists and others were arrested in the months leading up to the November 2021 election, a vote in which Ortega scored a fourth consecutive term and which the United States denounced as a sham.
“At the end, the political pressure of the political prisoners became a burden to the Ortega regime,” said Chamorro, who comes from an influential Nicaraguan family and had hoped to unseat Ortega, a former Marxist guerilla, as president. “He wanted to send the opposition out of the country.”
Chamorro learned upon reaching American soil that Ortega had meanwhile taken steps to strip the freed prisoners of their citizenship, dashing any hope of returning home while Ortega is in power.
“It started with illegality … and ended with illegality,” Chamorro said. “Very typical of a crazy dictatorship like Ortega’s.”
Ortega has described the release as a push to expel criminal provocateurs who sought to undermine Nicaragua.
Felix Maradiaga, another presidential contender who was also arrested in June of 2021, described the fast-paced series of events leading to his release as “Orwellian” after months with scant contact with his lawyers or the outside world.
He added he was not ready to discuss what prison was like inside El Chipote, but said, “No human should be in these conditions.”