Ortega Regime Hides the Files of Jailed Religious Leaders

Scene from the Managua Court complex in February 2019. An excessive quantity of police and riot squad agents are dispatched to guard the area whenever opposition leaders or dissenters are being tried.  Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial

The eight priests and assistants and Monsignor Rolando Alvarez are all accused of the bogus crimes of conspiracy and propagation of fake news. The supposed ‘evidence” for these crimes has been kept under wrap.

By Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – The Ortega regime is still keeping hidden the case files against eight religious figures currently in jail at Managua’s infamous El Chipote jail. Meanwhile, the political trials against them continue, as well as the regime’s persecution of the Catholic Church. That persecution has even extended to forbidding some traditional religious festivities.

Defense lawyers for the accused priests have not been able to view their files, even though the Ortega-controlled judges referred the cases to trial in October 2022. According to the minutes of the October 6 initial hearing, for example, Judge Gloria Maria Saavedra of the Tenth District Criminal Hearings Court in Managua ordered Father Oscar Danilo Benavides Davila to face trial. Similarly, priests Ramiro Tijerino Chavez, Jose Luis Diaz Cruz, Sadiel Antonio Eugarrios Cano, plus deacon Raul Antonio Vega and seminary students Darvin Leiva Mendoza and Melkin Centeno have all been in jail since August 19, following a police assault on the Matagalpa Curia.

The group of priests and seminary students had been imprisoned in the Curia for over a week, together with Matagalpa bishop Monsignor Rolando Alvarez. After police stormed the Curia, the Bishop was put under house arrest incommunicado in Managua, where he remains a political prisoner. The group accompanying him were jailed and eventually charged and remanded to trial in October 2022. Enrique Martinez Gamboa, the last priest to be abducted, was violently arrested by police on October 13 and also sent before a judge.

Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, who served as both Bishop of the Matagalpa dioceses and apostolic administrator of the Esteli dioceses, was remanded to trial on January 10, 2023, with no specific date yet set. The eight religious leaders and Alvarez himself are accused of the same contrived crimes: “conspiracy to undermine the national integrity” and “propagation of fake news”. These same crimes have been the dictatorship’s main instruments for jailing many who oppose them, as legal experts have pointed out.

Accused of crimes with no knowledge of the evidence

Defense lawyers for the religious figures are waiting for the trials to be scheduled, but the judge “hasn’t allowed anyone to access any of the files,” stated one of the sources consulted, who asked to remain anonymous for their protection.

The source added that the defense attorneys have only had access to the exchange of information and evidence during the initial hearings. After that, despite the fact that they’ve presented written requests to view the related legal documents, they’ve received no response. The principal documents that are supposed to be made public and turned over to them include the details of the accusation, the minutes from the hearing, the exchange of information and evidence, and the corresponding sentences.

Knowledge of the accusation is “essential”, an attorney maintains, adding: “if you don’t have the accusation, you’re left defenseless. They’re judging you for something, but you don’t even know what it is you did,” the source explained.

Pattern of legal repression against the political prisoners

This isn’t the first time that the Judicial Branch of the Ortega regime has hindered the defense lawyers representing political prisoners from exercising their assigned role. During the legal processes of some thirty social, political, student and other activists arrested within the context of the 2021 presidential elections, lawyers denounced a series of violations of their professional functions, and of the political prisoners’ right to a due defense. Unsurprisingly, all of the accused prisoners were found guilty and sentenced at the beginning of 2022.

In these cases, the attorneys obtained partial files for their clients after months of presenting written legal requests. This represents a violation of Article 124 of Nicaragua’s Criminal Processing Code, which establishes that both sides – prosecution and defense – can obtain simple copies of the legal proceedings without filing a written request.

Attorneys not allowed to speak with the jailed priests

Similarly, the attorneys haven’t been allowed to speak with the priests they’re defending, even though this is a right. In an analysis Confidencial carried out, the criminal lawyers indicated the prevalence of a repressive pattern since 2022. They saw the recent political trials as “much more aggressive and with many more violations of rights than in 2018 and 2019”, when the Ortega regime tried dozens of Nicaraguans for their involvement in the civic protests.

According to legal experts, the prosecution’s fabricated cases against the political prisoners in 2018 and 2019 attempted to simulate some version of legality. However, the current trials have no legal foundations at all. Priests, opposition leaders, journalists are charged and tried for the same crimes, thus making evident the Judicial Power’s complete surrender to the Ortega regime’s political interests.

“There’s been a common pattern since 2018. All the accusations have the exact same format. They’re fabricated in groups, there are no individual aspects, facts that could be attributed to a crime or that could constitute one aren’t specified. They merely say: “they conspired to undermine the territorial identity,” but they don’t say in what way they did this – how, when, where, what was evidence they extracted,” emphasized attorney Yader Morazan in a recent post.

The abductions and arrests of religious leaders that began in August 2022 opened a new chapter in the Ortega regime’s repression of the Catholic Church. This wave of persecution has been characterized by the intimidation of dozens of priests, causing the exile of half a dozen or more. The regime has forbidden certain religious processions, ordered police sieges around the houses of worship in different parts of the country, and warned priests that they must moderate the message of the sermons they share with the faithful. Eleven priests have become prisoners of conscience: two already declared guilty, eight awaiting trial in the El Chipote jail, and one – Monsgnor Alvarez – under house arrest.

Outside the religious sphere, Daniel Ortega is holding more that 230 political prisoners in the country’s different jails. On Monday, January 9th, in Ortega’s first address of the new year, he affirmed that he wouldn’t free them, despite the constant calls for their liberation on the part of their families and the international community.

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