Relatives fear for lives of jailed Nicaraguan opponents

People outside a fence with an officer on the inside
Family members of detained protesters arrive at the El Chipote jail in 2018.
(Alfredo Zuniga / Associated Press)

Families fear for the lives of four well-known opposition figures who are jailed in Nicaragua because of conditions at the infamous El Chipote prison.

The four prisoners began a hunger strike in September to protest a lack of medical care, bad food and mistreatment after they were arrested and placed on trial for vague charges akin to treason.

Among the prisoners is former Sandinista rebel commander Dora María Téllez, 65. She faces an eight-year sentence.

“We fear that they may die inside that torture center,” the relatives of Téllez and three other inmates said in a statement Monday. “Every day that passes, their lives are at greater risk.”

President Daniel Ortega alleged that they and dozens of other political prisoners were behind 2018 street protests that he claims were a plot to overthrow him. Critics say Ortega had them arrested to eliminate any opposition to his reelection in 2021.

Relatives of journalist Miguel Mendoza, academic Irving Larios and lawyer Róger Reyes joined in issuing the statement.

They said prison authorities have threatened not to give the inmates bottles of drinking water supplied by relatives.
Adding to their anguish is the fact that the Ortega regime canceled visits by family members almost two months ago.

Téllez led a 1978 assault on the National Palace during the Somoza family dictatorship, holding members of congress hostage in exchange for the release of rebel prisoners.

Téllez had served as the health minister during the first Sandinista government in 1979 but later became disenchanted as Ortega consolidated power and founded the Sandinista Renovation Movement, now known as the Democratic Renovation Union.


Ortega has targeted nongovernmental groups in Nicaragua, cutting off their foreign funding, seizing their offices and canceling their charters. He alleges that they worked with foreign interests that wanted to see him removed from office.

Nicaraguan judges have sentenced several opposition leaders, including former high-level officials of the governing Sandinista movement and former presidential contenders, to prison terms for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.”

Given the notoriously bad conditions at El Chipote and the age of some of the opposition leaders, relatives fear that the terms may be death sentences.

Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader who once led a raid that helped free then-rebel Ortega from prison, died while awaiting trial. He was 73.

Thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down antigovernment protests in 2018.