Nicaraguan bishop, a vocal Ortega critic, says he was target of assassination plot

MANAGUA (Reuters) - A Roman Catholic bishop in Nicaragua who has been a sharp critic of the government of President Daniel Ortega said he had been the target of an assassination plot last year and that Pope Francis had invited him to relocate to Rome.

Managua's Bishop Silvio Baez speaks during a news conference in Managua, Nicaragua April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

The cleric, Monsignor Silvio Baez, revealed details of the plot on Wednesday during a news conference.

“It’s true, it’s true ... I was in bed at 11 p.m. when I received a call from the political department of the U.S. Embassy telling me that they had full certainty of a plan to assassinate me, to be careful,” Baez said.

The Nicaraguan government and the U.S. embassy in Managua did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Baez gave no indication on Wednesday as to who may have targeted him and why and said he could not recall the exact date. He said he had been receiving threatening calls and messages to his cell phone, without giving more details.

He said the Argentine pontiff had called him to Rome for an unspecified period.

The bishop had been an outspoken critic of the Ortega administration’s crackdown on near-daily protests that broke out last April. The ensuing violence led to at least 300 deaths and more than 600 arrests, according to human rights groups.

The crisis has been the impoverished Central American country’s bloodiest and most intractable since a civil war that raged in the 1980s.

Nicaragua’s protests first erupted when Ortega’s government tried to reduce welfare benefits, but quickly swelled into broader opposition to Ortega, a Cold War-era former Marxist guerrilla leader who has held office since 2007.

The government said last month it would release all those arrested in the protests as part of a dialogue with the opposition.

Baez has previously told media that he had repeatedly received threats against him from government loyalists. The bishop, local rights activists and other prominent critics of Ortega have been publicly threatened on social media.

Baez was beaten and knifed in the arm last July, when he and other bishops visiting a southern Nicaraguan city took refuge in a church that was surrounded by armed government supporters.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights denounced the threats and harassment of Baez last May, saying they were grave enough to put the bishop and his family “in a situation of seriousness and urgency” and that they came in the context of his leading role in a national dialogue between protesters and government representatives.

Reporting by Ismael Lopez; writing by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien