Their Families’ Silence Failed to Bring them Home

Political Prisoners in Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Political prisoners Armando Robles Alaniz (left) and Esteban Paniagua Espinoza (right), originally from the towns of Morrito and San Carlos in Nicaragua’s southernmost Rio San Juan department.

Relatives now denounce that Esteban Paniagua and Armando Robles, detained since November 6, 2021, have suffered bogus trials and cruel treatment.

By Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – On the eve of Nicaragua’s November 7, 2021 general election, the Ortega regime unleashed a witch hunt against anyone they considered a dissident. In their list of prisoners of conscience arrested on November 6th, the Mechanism for Recognizing Political Prisoners includes six prisoners from the department of Rio San Juan, Nicaragua’s southernmost region. Family members of these six citizens never publicly spoken or denounced their cases, in hopes that their family members would be set free without delay.

Now, three months short of a year in jail, relatives of Armando Robles Alaniz and Esteban Paniagua Espinoza decided to speak with Confidencial and disclose the details of the detention, interrogation, cruelty, and bogus trials they suffered and continue suffering.

Case of Armando Robles

Armando Robles, 50, a farmer, is a native of the town of Morrito. Before his arrest on November 6, 2021, he had been detained and interrogated by the local police on two previous occasions.

His relative, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that the first two times the rural resident was detained were on September 3 and October 5, 2021.

“They persecuted him for thinking differently, for being a farmer who belonged to the [opposition group] Civic Alliance. Three months before they ordered his detention, there was a man in civilian clothes who followed him on a motorcycle. Later, they briefly held him twice at the police outpost. Those times, they asked him who else was in his organization, where he kept his weapons, told him to turn these in, and finally, told him he was absolutely forbidden to leave Morrito,” the source explained.

“They beat him to make him confess he had weapons”

Armando Robles was detained while sitting on his own porch, accompanied by his wife and the youngest of his eight children. A police patrol of at least seven agents parked in front of his property, blocked the entrance and demanded that he “go with them”, without showing any legal order or explaining the reasons for his detention.

When the farmer’s family went to look for him at the Morrito police station, the agents only told them they were holding him “for 48 hours, under investigation”, and that they couldn’t give them any more information, due to “orders from above”.

In fact, Robles remained in the jail cells of the local police station from November 6th through November 12th. During that time, he wasn’t allowed any visits. He was interrogated and beaten daily.

“They beat him during all six days they held him: they hit him in the head with their gun barrels; they struck his ribs, hit him on the back, everywhere. They beat him because they wanted him to say that he had weapons. He wasn’t going to say that, because he didn’t have any, he’s never used them,” the relative indicated.

The source added that on November 12th, before being transferred to the police station in San Carlos, capital of the Rio San Juan department, Armando Robles was escorted by police to the Morrito health center because the blows he had received had caused his blood pressure to shoot up.

Once in San Carlos, the relative recalled, the beatings ceased. However, the interrogations and mistreatment persisted. They subjected him to “interviews” all day long; they only fed him at night; and they left him handcuffed for an entire week, both day and night.

Found guilty of cybercrimes, although he wasn’t even on social media

On February 15, 2022, Armando Robles was accused of the supposed crimes of “conspiracy to undermine the national integrity” and “propagation of fake news through the new information technology.” Accused along with him of these crimes was Dominga de la Cruz Morales, who had also been detained on November 6 in Morrito.

Judge Lester Garcia allowed the accusation against both citizens to go forward and denied them the right to lawyers of their own choosing, assigning them a court-appointed lawyer instead.

The accusation states that they both planned “a social uprising with the goal of triggering violence and alarm.” According to this initial accusation, they were planning to burn down a polling place in Morrito’s, “Delfina Quezada” school. In addition, they were accused of using social media to spread and share supposed fake news.

Armando Robles’ relative denounced the anomalies and illegalities that riddled the trial. The date of detention was falsified, and the family member assures that Robles was tried together with someone he had no contact or friendship with. The official evidence consisted only of the testimony of five police officials.

“They brought in their people to tell lies. All of them [the witnesses] were police. They accused him of meeting with that woman (Dominga Morales), of conspiring, of supposedly wanting to burn down a school on election day, when he didn’t even know or have any friendship with that woman. They also said he used those social networks they mentioned, and he doesn’t know how to use them. He used a tiny old-style cell phone – the kind you just use to call, with keys you push. When they detained him, they saw that cellphone. They also said he posted false news about the government on November 8, when he’d been in jail since November 6. Everything they came in to say were pure lies,” declared Robles’ relative.

Despite the fact they had no material proof of the supposed conspiracy, or of the supposed spreading of fake news, Judge Jose Ramon Guillen of San Carlos declared both Armando Robles and Dominga Morales guilty of both crimes.

On April 4, 2022, Robles – now a political prisoner – was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 56,461 cordobas [approximately US 1,575]. Two days later, he was transferred to the Cuisala Penitentiary in Juigalpa, Chontales.

Although the interrogations ended once he was in prison, the prisoner of conscience remains in a punishment cell, crowded together with nine other common prisoners. He doesn’t receive visits on the same regular schedule as the common prisoners who have been locked up – his are only scheduled for every 40 or 45 days.

Severe health consequences include loss of 40 pounds

This same family member denounced that Robles has suffered severe health consequences during these nine months of imprisonment. He’s had problems with high blood pressure, suffers permanent back and rib pain and has lost over 40 pounds.

Given this situation, the family member urges the government to grant Robles “immediate release” since, as he repeated, “it was all a show, a lie. He’s innocent, and they declared him guilty only because he thinks differently. He’s never done anything wrong, he dedicated himself to his land, and to the small store he manages at home, together with his wife.”

The relative explained that there are still several family members who don’t want to denounce these things publicly, holding on to hope that this will help secure a quick release for Robles. This relative, however, decided to “raise their voice, because there are no signs that the silence in reality is helping get him his freedom quickly.”

Like some relatives of Armando Robles, the family members of various other prisoners detained the night of November 6 in Rio San Juan have also chosen not to publicly denounce their cases. However, among those detained and recognized as prisoners of conscience by the Mechanism for Recognizing Political Prisoners are: Isaac Martínez, 37, from San Carlos; three citizens identified only by their initials, ages and places of origin: M.J.D.C., 56, of Morrito; M.M.R.A., 31, from El Almendro; and O.G.L.H., 40, of San Miguelito; and three other detentions registered in November 2021 from that department, merely described as “anonymous”.

Case of Esteban Paniagua

Another person detained while at home on November 6, 2021, was Esteban Paniagua Espinoza. Some 15 police agents arrived at his home that night, aboard two pick-up trucks. They came onto Espinoza’s property and – without presenting any legal warrant or order – took him to the San Carlos Police station.

One of Paniagua’s relatives, who was forced to flee Nicaragua due to the regime’s persecution and threats, affirmed that the citizen was jailed for “thinking differently” and being active in the Citizens for Liberty Party. That political party was abruptly stripped of its legal status prior to the elections by the Nicaraguan Supreme Electoral Council, a body controlled by the Ortega regime.

The source explained that Esteban Paniagua’s other family members didn’t denounce the case publicly through the media because they held out hopes that he would be freed.

“We didn’t believe this whole legal process would go so far, because people in town said he was going to get out. However, the reality began looking different – four months passed, and nothing happened; they continued the trial process and nothing, so I’ve made the decision to denounce it,” the relative indicated.

Esteban Paniagua, 62, is a man whose only livelihood came from his Social Security pension. His family member asserts that although he was an active member and treasurer of the opposition political party, “he never had any problems with anyone. He even got along well with and talked with those who were Sandinistas. Everyone was surprised when they took him away.”

The source explained further that, following Paniagua’s capture, the police merely told them he was “under investigation”. He was held incommunicado for two months.

“He wasn’t allowed a visit until December 24th. His family went almost two months without seeing him,” denounced the relative.

Esteban Paniagua was formally charged on February 17, 2022, of the supposed crime of “undermining the national integrity and spreading fake news.”

“Absurd” evidence against him

During the trial, the family member continued, the police authorities “manipulated the date of detention, to put it closer to the date of trial” and presented “absurd” evidence, such as screenshots of Paniagua’s supposed Facebook posts and witness statements only from the Police.

“They presented some Facebook posts that don’t appear because he never made them. He did have a Facebook account, but he almost never used it, he didn’t post things,” the source highlighted.

Judge Jose Ramon Guillen declared Paniagua guilty, and on April 1, 2022, sentenced him to ten years in jail – five for each crime – and issued a fine of 56,461 cordobas – the same amount Robles was sentenced to pay. This, despite the fact that during the trial, “they didn’t prove any of the crimes.”

The family member affirmed that the political prisoner was beaten twice while in transit to the trial hearings. He also suffered constant interrogations, during which they asked him “who he was working for, what organization, and what orders they gave him.”

On April 6, Paniagua was transferred to the Cuisala Penitentiary in Juigalpa, Chontales. He remains there, in a punishment cell where he’s only allowed visits every 45 days.

Due to the jail conditions he’s had to suffer, the political prisoner has developed blood pressure problems, has symptoms of possible heart problems, and “has dropped a lot of weight”.

“We asked that he be allowed the benefit of house arrest. He’s an elderly man, he has health problems, he’s already 62, and he shouldn’t be living locked up that way. He’s innocent, and if they’re not going to let him go completely free, we’re asking them to at least send him home, change his penal measures,” urged Esteban Paniagua’s relative.

The Ortega regime is currently holding more than 190 political prisoners in the country’s different jails. Between the 1st and the 7th of November 2021, just before and during the general elections, the independent organization Urnas Abiertas [“Open Ballot Boxes”] counted over 30 people detained.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.