TIPITAPA, NICARAGUA, NOV. 22 -- In an action described as part of a regional peace plan, the government freed 985 pardoned political prisoners today, by far the largest single-day release in eight years of Sandinista rule. A broader amnesty remained in abeyance.
At Tipitapa, a minimum-security prison farm on the outskirts of the capital, Sandinista authorities lined up about 590 prisoners on one side of a windblown field and their overjoyed family members on the other.
After a brief ceremony, the ropes went down and the two sides rushed together, laughing and weeping.
The other prisoners were freed in ceremonies in several provinces. All were pardoned Nov. 5 by President Daniel Ortega in a speech marking 90 days since the Aug. 7 signing of the peace accord. The government freed the prisoners to show it will continue to move toward compliance with the accord. But a general amnesty to release all but a few political prisoners, which was approved last Wednesday by the National Assembly, takes effect only when an international monitoring commission finds that the other Central American countries have stopped all aid to U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels, known as contras.
Politicians, church figures and even some newly freed prisoners criticized today's pardon as falling short of popular hopes.
"I'm happy that these people will rejoin their families. But a pardon is not an amnesty," said the Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, in a homily.
Mauricio Diaz, an opposition assemblyman who is also a member of the four-man National Reconciliation Commission, said, "This must be only a first step. Our expectations went way beyond this."
Diaz noted that the assembly voted last March to pardon 618 political prisoners, but that bill was never signed into law by Ortega. Only 212 Nicaraguans from the assembly's list were freed today. The list included many sympathizers of opposition political parties.
Lt. Cmdr. Alvaro Guzman, head of the national prison system, said prisoners linked to killings were ruled out of the pardon. Some prisoners were rewarded on the basis of good conduct in jail, or selected because they were old, in ill health, or nearing the end of their sentences, Sandinista officials said.
Most of those released today were rounded up in recent years on suspicion of collaborating with the contras. But they also included about 200 former members of the National Guard of the late dictator Anastasio Somoza.
In recent months, angry opposition to freeing any former guardsmen came from pro-Sandinista mothers of Nicaraguans killed in the 1979 insurrection against Somoza.
"Pardon may be for some people, but we prefer to see justice done with the guardsmen," said Isabel Berrios, 66, during an assembly session Friday, at which today's pardon was ratified. Berrios' 20-year-old daughter died in 1977 fighting for the Sandinistas.
Some released guardsmen enthusiastically praised the pardon and the government.
Santos Vazquez, 45, was a National Guard infantryman when he sought refuge at the Nicaraguan Red Cross in July 1979 and was taken from there to jail. As he was happily embraced by his only relative, a sister, Vazquez said that while he was jailed in Managua he saw "a change for the better in Nicaragua under the revolution. I don't want this revolution to fail."
Many prisoners were peasants from Nicaragua's mountains who remained bitter about their time behind bars. "The only people I was helping when they took me were my young children," said Jose Miguel Herrera, 40, who served 18 months of a five-year sentence for allegedly working with the contras. He claimed he was falsely accused by resentful neighbors.
Luis Murillo Gonzalez, 42, said he was imprisoned for 15 months in Managua's penitentiary on suspicion of pro-contra activity without ever being tried or sentenced.
"A pardon is not enough for us because it doesn't wipe out our record. We hoped for a general amnesty so we could erase the past and so we wouldn't have to leave anyone behind waiting to get out," Murillo said.
Prison official Guzman rejected as "deliberately twisted figures" assertions by Reagan administration officials and contra leaders that the government is holding about 15,000 political prisoners. He said after today 7,439 prisoners remain in Nicaraguan jails, including about 4,400 common criminals and approximately 3,000 people accused of political violations.
Of these, about 2,000 are former guardsmen, Sandinista officials said. However, Guzman's figures do not include suspects held in the jails of the state security police, which are not open to international observers. Up to 1,600 Nicaraguans remain in those cells, according to independent human rights groups' estimates.