Opponents await Ortega’s next move after Nicaraguan bishops plea

People celebrate behind a barricade after the arrival of bishops of the Episcopal Conference and members of the Civic Alliance in Masaya

Managua (AFP) – Opponents of Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega waited Friday for his response to a plea by Roman Catholic bishops to end violence as the death toll in two months of anti-government protests rose to 212.

The bishops — tasked last month with mediating an increasingly bloody confrontation between the opposition and government — traveled to the besieged opposition city of Masaya on Thursday “to avoid another massacre.”

They said police commissioner Ramon Avellan committed to end attacks by police and pro-Ortega paramilitaries and release those arrested during the protests.

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. 

Silvio Baez, Managua’s auxiliary bishop, said the commissioner had also agreed to release detainees in Masaya and other surrounding towns.

The bishops did not say how many protesters would be released. They said they would work with the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights to also win the release of young protesters held at Managua’s El Chipote prison.

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, but there as of early Friday there were no reports of more clashes.

– Death toll rising –

Meanwhile, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said Friday that the death toll during two months of anti-government 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 its report after its visit to the Central American country.

“On the contrary, the IACHR found that the state response has been characterized by the repression and criminalization of the demostrators 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.

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 Friday during a special session of the Washington-based Permanent Council of the Organization 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, saying the Ortega administration “must be held accountable for the violence.”

The latest round of negotiations aimed at ending Nicaragua’s violence once again fell apart on Monday, with the bishops and civil groups accusing the government of failing to act on a promise to allow more probes from international organizations.

A one-time leftist guerrilla, Ortega led the country from 1979 to 1990 and then returned to the presidency in 2007, now serving his third consecutive term.