A Nicaraguan judge found four Roman Catholic priests, two seminarians and a church cameraman guilty of conspiracy against the state in a trial held on Thursday 26 January.
Father Ramiro Tijerino, Father Sadiel Eugarrios, Father Raúl González, Father José Luis Díaz, seminarians Darvin Leiva and Melkin Sequeira, and cameraman Sergio Cárdenas were detained on 19 August 2022 after Nicaraguan security forces stormed the Diocese of Matagalpa curia where the seven men had been forcibly confined along with Bishop Rolando Álvarez Lagos and four others for 15 days.
Judge Nadia Camila Tardencilla found the seven men guilty in a decision stating that they had damaged national integrity and propagated fake news to the detriment of the Nicaraguan State and society. The men will be sentenced on 3 February; prosecutor Manuel Rugama has recommended 10 years imprisonment and a heavy fine. All of the men are currently imprisoned in the Directorate for Judicial Assistance, better known as El Chipote, which has been described by Nicaraguan human rights activists as ‘a torture centre’.
At a separate hearing on 10 January, Judge Maria Gloria Saavedra Corrales, ordered Bishop Álvarez Lagos, who is under house arrest, to be put on trial on charges of conspiracy and spreading false information. Judge Saavedra Corrales also confirmed a warrant for the arrest of Father Uriel Vallejos Tórrez, who fled into exile after government forces blockaded the priest and a number of his parishioners inside the parish house for five days at the beginning of August 2022.
In a separate case, another priest, Father Oscar Danilo Benavides Dávila, was found guilty of the crimes of conspiracy, undermining national integrity, and the propagation of fake news on 16 January. Judge Nancy Aguirre Dudiel sentenced Father Benavides Dávila, who was arrested on 14 August, to a cumulative eight years in prison.
The government targeting of priests and lay leaders is part of a wider crackdown on independent civil society which began following widespread protests in 2018 and became much more severe over the course of 2022. Roman Catholic leaders who have expressed support for the protesters or who have been publicly critical of the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo have been subjected to threats, harassment and arbitrary detention.
CSW’s Head of Advocacy Anna Lee Stangl said: ‘The Ortega-Murillo government’s decision to pursue trumped up charges leading to the convictions of religious leaders like Father Benavides Davila and the priests and lay leaders from Matagalpa and the harsh sentences that have been recommended and imposed represent a significant escalation of its crackdown on all independent voices and its attack on freedom of religion or belief in Nicaragua. We call for the immediate release of all political prisoners, including religious leaders. We urge leaders around the world, and especially those in Latin America, to make it clear to the Nicaraguan government that this is unacceptable.’
Caption: The seven men who were found guilty on 26 January. Collage created and published by the Nicaraguan Press.
Note to Editors:
- Father Tijerino is rector of the John Paul II University and oversees the San Juan Bautista parish. Father Diaz is the dean of the Matagalpa de San Pedro Cathedral, and Father Eugarrios is the sub-dean of the same.