MANAGUA, NICARAGUA, OCT. 3 -- The regional peace plan signed in Guatemala has ignited an emotional dispute here over which prisoners should be released under a political amnesty required by the accord.
The Roman Catholic bishops, the opposition political parties and the nongovernment human rights commission say the amnesty in the Aug. 7 plan requires the government to pardon all prisoners jailed on political charges. "We want to break the chain of hatred," said Msgr. Bismarck Carballo, spokesman for the Managua Archdiocese.
But top Sandinista government leaders have opposed freeing some prisoners who are in jail for being antigovernment rebels or former members of the National Guard of the late dictator Anastasio Somoza. Such prisoners have been officially labeled "genocidal murderers."
The Guatemala plan calls for an amnesty to improve the climate for peaceful democracy in the countries that signed: Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica. The amnesty requires those governments to offer rebels a chance to lay down their arms and return to civilian life. The plan has no specific language about the release of political prisoners, although it has been widely assumed some would be freed.
The ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front mobilized its Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs, a network of thousands of women whose relatives died fighting Somoza's National Guard or the U.S.-backed rebels known as counterrevolutionaries or contras. In recent marches and debates they rejected a blanket pardon and evoked the memories of fallen relatives.
"Do you want to reopen my old wounds?" Haydee Miranda, a mother from northern Matagalpa province, asked President Daniel Ortega during the Sept. 26 congress of the Sandinista women's organization.
"We're human, too. We know how to weep, too," responded Ivette Ruiz, member of a committee of relatives of political prisoners, in an interview. Her father, Eichsman Valerio Ruiz, has been in jail since the Sandinistas took power on charges of helping the National Guard.
Estimates vary on the number of political prisoners. The government says there are about 2,200 former members of the National Guard in its penitentiaries, and another 2,000 Nicaraguans accused of collaborating with the contras. Lino Hernandez, head of the opposition human rights commission, put the number of accused contras closer to 7,000, including about 1,700 being held without trial in State Security prisons and other jails.
The issue is a wrenching one because it harks back to the Sandinistas' 1979 revolution when the nation was united against Somoza and his National Guard. Now, with Nicaragua deeply divided after eight years of Sandinista rule, the peace plan is focusing attention on many cases of Nicaraguans jailed for long terms because they carried the stigma of ties to the National Guard.
One court dossier picked at random from a stack of records of the 1980 trials of National Guard members contains the case of Roger Antonio Corea, then 19. Corea was sentenced to 11 years by a special tribunal on the basis of a paper showing he did hospital security duty for the National Guard.
The court did not consider his lawyer's evidence that Corea deserted in 1977, was recaptured and was serving time in a stockade during the revolution for trying to desert again.
Eichsman Ruiz, according to his daughter Ivette, was an agronomist who tended the crops on several Somoza family farms. He sought refuge in the Nicaraguan Red Cross in July 1979 but was seized there by Sandinista troops.
Sandinista leaders acknowledged that their amnesty proposals contain a harsh irony for these prisoners. The government is willing to forgive the transgressions of contras who return from the battlefield to civilian life. But many former members of the National Guard who turned themselves in voluntarily could remain behind bars.
Ortega, after weeks of debate, softened the government's position in a speech last week. "The amnesty can cover guardsmen who didn't commit major crimes," he said, admitting that many cases were "tried hastily out of political necessity."
Over the years the government has freed more than 5,000 former guardsmen.