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Nicaragua frees almost all of its political prisoners

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Nicaraguan government has freed almost all of its political prisoners - 222 were put on a plane and flown to Washington, D.C. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports this was a surprise move from an increasingly authoritarian government.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: As they waited at the arrivals hall of Dulles International Airport in Virginia, they read the names of the now-freed political prisoners.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Edgard Francisco Parrales Castillo.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Libertad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Maria Esther Gonzalez Vega.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Libertad.

PERALTA: According to family members, police collected dissidents from across the country overnight and took them to a notorious prison in the capital nicknamed el Chipote. They were priests and journalists and members of the opposition. And they didn't know until this morning that they were being freed. Ariana Gutierrez Pinto's mother is a human rights activist who was jailed more than a year ago. Pinto got a call that her mother was already on a plane headed her way. She fell to her knees, she says, and in a daze, drove to the airport.

ARIANA GUTIERREZ PINTO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: She hadn't heard details. She doesn't even remember when she last saw her mother.

PINTO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: She can't think, she says, but she's yearning to hold her mother in her arms. Ever since anti-government protests erupted in Nicaragua in 2018, President Daniel Ortega has unleashed violent repression. He has consolidated his power, squashed popular protests, thrown his political opponents in prison, and hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled. On national television, a judge said that the 222 prisoners were being deported to the United States to, quote, "protect peace and national security."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Traitors, he called them. And at the same time, Nicaragua's national assembly passed a new law that sought to overwrite the constitution and strip the former prisoners of their Nicaraguan citizenship.

ARTURO MCFIELDS: In part, we are happy. We are celebrating. But on the other hand, they are not really free.

PERALTA: That's Arturo McFields, a former Ortega official who defected last year.

MCFIELDS: The political prisoners cannot go back to their homes, cannot go and have a political life, a civil life, study, work, express themselves freely. That does not exist in Nicaragua.

PERALTA: McFields says, for the Ortega regime, this is a, quote, "political maneuver."

MCFIELDS: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: What the regime is facing, he says, is an internal crisis. Over the past couple of years, even some of Ortega's closest allies have turned on him and some of them have been jailed. McFields says pressure was building inside the regime, and this prisoner release buys him breathing room and a little goodwill from the international community.

(CROSSTALK)

PERALTA: Back in Virginia, the political prisoners became exiles. At a hotel close to the airport, they reunited with tearful family members. Juan Sebastian Chamorro, who was jailed for running against President Ortega in 2021, said the plane ride out was a moment of conflicting emotions.

JUAN SEBASTIAN CHAMORRO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: They sang the national anthem, he said. They were happy, but they were banished. They were banished, he said, but they were free. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.