MANAGUA: Jailed Nicaraguan protesters said they had suffered beatings and mistreatment in detention following their release on Friday after a plea by Catholic bishops, as the death toll in two months of antigovernment protests rose to 212.
Twenty-six young protesters were freed from jails in Managua and the flashpoint opposition bastion of Masaya in the first release of prisoners since the intervention of the bishops.
The clergy were tasked last month with mediating an increasingly bloody confrontation between the opposition and government.
The bishops travelled to the besieged opposition city of Masaya on Thursday “to avoid another massacre” as police and paramilitaries loyal to President Daniel Ortega prepared an assault on opposition-held neighbourhoods of the city.
They said police commissioner Ramon Avellan committed to end attacks by police and pro-Ortega paramilitaries and release those arrested during the protests.
Bayron Hernandez, 16, said he had been beaten on the head with a rifle butt after he was arrested by hooded pro-government paramilitaries.
“They split my head open with an AK (rifle),” he said after he was handed over to a human rights group at Masaya’s San Miguel church.
Evert Padilla, freed from Managua’s El Chipote prison, said he was held on the ground and kicked during an arrest at his home. The 23-year-old spoke after being handed over to Church authorities at Managua Cathedral.
Avellan “told us that he was going to make the call to suspend all harassment” in Masaya, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes said.
“Let’s see if it’s really true,” said Brenes, who led the influential bishops’ mission to the flashpoint city with the Vatican’s envoy to Nicaragua Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag.
Masaya, once a stronghold of Ortega’s Sandinista revolution, has been a focal point of protests aimed at forcing him out of office. Last Monday, it declared itself to be in rebellion against his government.
At least 23 people have been killed in the city since the unrest began.
Death toll rising
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said on Friday that the death toll during two months of antigovernment unrest has risen to 212, faulting Ortega’s government for “serious” human rights violations.
“Nicaragua has not fulfilled its international obligations to respect, protect and guarantee human rights in the context of the social protests that began on April 18,” the rights body said in a report after its visit to the Central American country.
“On the contrary, the IACHR found that the state response has been characterised by the repression and criminalisation of the demonstrators and the social movement they represent, which has resulted in serious violations of human rights,” the 97-page document said.
The Washington-based group said more than 1,300 people had been wounded in the unrest.
“Thanks to the IACHR for showing the truth of the genocide perpetrated against the people of Nicaragua by the government,” said the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio Baez.
Canada condemned Ortega’s crackdown on protesters, saying it is devastating the Latin American country and raising regional security concerns.
“We condemn the killings of unarmed protesters by state security forces and paramilitary groups and the crackdowns in Managua and Masaya,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement.
Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister Denis Moncada rejected the report as “subjective, distorted, prejudiced and plainly biased.”
Descent into chaos
Nicaragua’s descent into chaos began when relatively small protests against now-scrapped social security reforms exploded into a popular uprising against Ortega, whose forces met demonstrators with a violent crackdown.
“State violence has been aimed at discouraging participation in demonstrations and quelling this expression of political dissent,” the IACHR concluded, calling on Nicaragua’s government to “reach a constitutional, democratic and peaceful solution to this human rights crisis.”
The IACHR presented the report on Friday during a special session of the Washington-based Permanent Council of the Organisation of American States.
Carlos Trujillo, the US permanent representative to the OAS, said Washington would “continue to pressure for democracy in Nicaragua.”
“The US condemns the intimidation campaign by the government of Nicaragua,” he said, adding the Ortega administration “must be held accountable for the violence.”
The latest round of negotiations aimed at ending Nicaragua’s violence fell apart on Monday.
Bishops and civil groups accused the government of failing to act on a promise to allow more probes from international organisations.
A one-time leftist guerrilla, Ortega led the country from 1979 to 1990 and then returned to the presidency in 2007. He is now serving his third consecutive term.