Nicaragua unexpectedly frees nearly all political prisoners, sends 222 to exile in the U.S.

Nicaragua's increasingly authoritarian president, Daniel Ortega, abruptly released 222 political prisoners Thursday morning and bused them to the airport, where an airplane chartered by the U.S. government flew them to Washington, D.C. The released dissidents, including several well-known political figures arrested before they could challenge Ortega in stacked 2021 elections, were greeted at Dulles International Airport by family and friends, tears and hugs.

The Biden administration said Ortega "decided unilaterally" to release the political prisoners, surprising the U.S. a few days ago with an offer to send them into exile in the U.S. "As a general rule, we don't like to do that," a senior U.S. official told The Washington Post. "But the fact is, the humanitarian situation was so severe for this group," an exception was made. The Nicaraguans were accepted into the U.S. on a two-year humanitarian parole, NBC News reports. It's unclear if they will be allowed to return home.

Nicaragua's Judicial Council said Thursday that the 222 freed prisoners have been declared "traitors" and will be permanently denied political rights in Nicaragua. The Ortega-aligned National Assembly then voted to amend the Constitution so the government can strip "traitors" of their citizenship.

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State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. did not make any deals with the Ortega government to win the release of the dissidents. Two approached prisoners declined to be flown into exile, including a Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who told friends he would rather remain a prisoner in Nicaragua than leave his people, the Post reports, citing local media reports.

It's unclear what prompted Ortega to release the political prisoners, many of whom he had arrested after quashing massive 2018 anti-government protests. The new exiles include student organizers, business leaders, former Ortega allies, priests, and journalists, as well as opposition politicians and their family members. One was a dual U.S.-Nicaraguan citizen. Many of them were being held in Managua's notorious El Chipote prison.

Will Freeman, a Latin America fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Post that the Ortega government is facing tightening sanctions from the U.S. but also growing pressure to release the prisoners from other Latin American countries, and "this is mostly about buying some breathing room internationally." Ortega said on national TV Thursday evening that his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, had suggested sending the prisoners into exile.

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