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5 priests sentenced to 10 years for conspiracy in Nicaragua

MEXICO — A Nicaraguan court has sentenced four Roman Catholic priests to 10 years in prison for conspiracy over long-running government allegations that the church supported illegal pro-democracy protests.

A human rights group in the Central American country quickly denounced the sentences handed down on Monday and brought to the attention of lawyers from the Legal Defense Unit.

It was the latest chapter in a crackdown on the church by President Daniel Ortega.

On Sunday, a fifth priest was sentenced to 10 years in prison on the same charges.

The priests were convicted in closed trials in which government-appointed defenders acted as lawyers for the priests.

Those sentenced on Monday had worked with the bishop of Matagalpa Rolando Álvarez, and one of them had been rector of the private university Juan Pablo II in the capital Managua.

Álvarez is under house arrest for conspiracy and “harming the Nicaraguan government and society” and is expected to be sentenced soon.

Two seminary students and a cameraman who worked for the diocese were also sentenced on Monday. The six defendants were arrested last year and all were deprived of the right to hold political office.

The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights described the sentences as “a legal aberration”.

“This is an insult to the law, an insult to people’s intelligence, an insult to the international community and international human rights agencies,” the center said in a statement on Tuesday.

Alvarez, the bishop, has been a key religious voice in discussions over Nicaragua’s future since 2018, when a wave of protests against Ortega’s government led to a sweeping crackdown on opponents.

On Sunday, the Reverend Óscar Danilo Benavidez, a priest from Mulukuku in northern Nicaragua, was convicted of conspiracy and spreading false information. He was arrested on August 14.

The government arrested dozens of opposition leaders in 2021, including seven potential presidential candidates. They were sentenced to prison last year in snap trials that were also closed to the public.

Ortega argued that the pro-democracy protests were carried out with foreign support and with the backing of the Catholic Church. Last year, he expelled nuns from the religious order of the Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa and the papal nuncio, the Vatican’s top diplomat in Nicaragua.

Last August, Pope Francis told thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square that he was closely following the events “of concern and sorrow” in Nicaragua which involve “people and institutions”. He did not mention the detentions of the priests or of Álvarez.

“I would like to express my conviction and my hope that through an open and sincere dialogue, we can still find the bases of a respectful and peaceful coexistence,” the pope said.

Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla who came to power in 1979 after the Sandinista revolutionary group he helped lead toppled the dictatorship of President Anastasio Somoza, infuriated the Vatican in the 1980s. But he gradually forged an alliance with the church as he tried to regain the presidency in 2007 after a long period without power.

Just days before being elected to a fourth consecutive term last year, he accused the country’s Catholic bishops of drafting a policy proposal in 2018 on behalf of “terrorists, serving the Yankees”. He also called the bishops themselves terrorists.

ABC News

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