Nicaraguan judge orders dissident bishop to stand trial | News

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A judge in Nicaragua has ruled on Tuesday that a Catholic bishop, known for criticizing the government of President Daniel Ortega, will stand trial on charges of conspiracy and spreading false information.

Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who serves the inner diocese of Matagalpa, has been under house arrest since August in what international rights groups consider an attempt to stifle dissent.

Ortega has a history of detaining members of the opposition and has attacked the Catholic Church as a “perfect dictatorship”, denouncing its priests as “killers” and “coup planners” .

Álvarez’s arrest and prosecution comes as part of a years-long crackdown on anti-government protests that began in April 2018, when student demonstrators took to the streets to announce plans to cut pensions and raise taxes. construction

The government arrested 1,614 people as a result of those initial demonstrations, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Another 328 were killed.

The Catholic bishops of Nicaragua tried to intervene as mediators during the conflict, helping to organize the first round of peace talks between the Ortega government and the opposition, starting on May 16, 2018. But by the end of the month, the peace talks had failed, with pro-government forces opening fire on protesters.

Ortega has since been at odds with the country’s bishops, calling the protests a foreign-backed “coup”.

Several prominent dissidents have been arrested in the intervening years, including former journalist Cristiana Chamorro, who was seen as a frontrunner to challenge Ortega in Nicaragua’s presidential elections. in 2021.

She was charged with money laundering and ultimately barred from running, as were at least six other presidential hopefuls. Ortega, who has been president since 2007, won re-election to a fourth term in November, with up to 75 percent of the vote.

Prominent Western rights groups and governments, however, have denied the election’s legitimacy. Spain’s foreign minister, for example, called the vote a “farce”, and US President Joe Biden called the proceedings “a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair”.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Ortega again targeted Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops, calling them “terrorists” working in the “service of the Yankees.”

“In any other country in the world, they would be on trial,” Ortega said. Last March, his government took the step of expelling the Vatican’s top diplomat in Nicaragua.

Bishop Álvarez has been outspoken against the Ortega regime, condemning the violence that has left hundreds dead since 2018. Last May, Álvarez announced that he would launch a hunger strike to complain about what he called police harassment against him and other members of the Catholic Church.

He accused the police of following him on the street and around his home. He vowed that his fast would be “indefinite” while the government refused to respect his “constitutional rights, civil rights [and] free transport”.

“We, as the Church in Nicaragua, are being persecuted,” Álvarez said in a statement. “What happened to me yesterday is persecution.”

In August, police launched a pre-dawn raid on Álvarez’s church residence in Matagalpa, arresting him on charges of “organizing violent groups”.

There were five other priests in the residence at that time, some of whom are now in the notorious Chipote prison, an institution that human rights groups accuse of torture.

Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, has expressed “concern and sadness” about the situation in Nicaragua, saying: “I would like to express my confidence and my hope, through open communication and sincere, as a basis for respect. and a peaceful coexistence could still be found.”

In December, a Nicaraguan court ordered Álvarez to remain under house arrest pending trial. Silvio José Báez, another outspoken leader of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, criticized the ruling on Twitter.

“What the Nicaraguan dictatorship is doing against my brother bishop, Bishop Rolando J Álvarez, is a crime,” he wrote. “Roland, you are not alone! We are with you, we are praying for him for you, and we want your freedom.”

Báez lives in exile, according to the Reuters news agency, with other priests who fled Nicaragua.

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