WITH THE release of the last 56 political prisoners this month, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has emptied his jails of the 392 people detained for their involvement in a largely peaceful uprising against his government in 2018. Unfortunately, 286 of the those freed were merely transferred from prison to another restrictive regimen, such as house arrest — despite Mr. Ortega’s promise to drop legal charges — according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.
The Human Rights Watch report also documents the fact that Mr. Ortega’s security forces subjected many of the detainees to physical and psychological torture, including acid burning, waterboarding, electric shock, asphyxiation and sexual assault, for which there has been no legal accountability, and never will be if the Nicaraguan strongman has his way. The same goes for the killings, mostly by government forces and pro-Ortega paramilitary groups, of at least 300 people; more than 2,000 were injured, according to the report.
Even beyond these casualties, the costs of Mr. Ortega’s ongoing tyranny are high; he has weakened Nicaragua, bringing economic collapse and growing international isolation to the already-crippled nation. Nevertheless, the reality is that Mr. Ortega’s crackdown on dissent was successful: He has protected his grip on power at least for now.
Last year’s sanctions against Mr. Ortega’s wife (who is also the vice president), son and national police chief did force the president’s hand, making it clear that he had to take steps to alleviate Nicaragua’s plight. As a result, he agreed to reopen the stalled talks with opposition group Civil Alliance earlier this year. The release of Nicaragua’s political prisoners, albeit marred by their continuing legal limbo, is a pragmatic outcome of these debates. They show that international pressure can have an impact.
Now, the pressure must be sustained until Mr. Ortega genuinely frees all those improperly detained and takes steps to protect human rights. Mr. Ortega wants international recognition of his authority and an end to sanctions against his top officials — neither of which is a viable possibility. Instead, the international community must turn up the heat on Nicaragua.
The United States and Canada have imposed additional targeted sanctions on top Nicaraguan officials. The European Union has yet to place any. The United States should unite with others and make clear that even stricter costs will be imposed if Mr. Ortega continues his attack on basic freedoms. Among other measures, Human Rights Watch recommends targeted sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans against the officials responsible for the torture and abuse of anti-government protesters.
It is still possible for other nations to help Nicaragua’s people. Mr. Ortega may make concessions, but only if the alternative is more painful for him.