Nicaragua releases 100 prisoners, national dialogue starts

MANAGUA (Reuters) - The Nicaraguan government on Wednesday released 100 people the opposition considers political prisoners, just as government and opposition leaders restarted talks aimed at ending a national crisis.

Relatives react after a bus transporting opposition supporters, considered political prisoners, left La Modelo prison hours before government and opposition leaders were due to restart talks, in Managua, Nicaragua February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Pablo Cuevas, an attorney for the Permanent Commission of Human Rights, a non-governmental organization, said the detainees began leaving penitentiaries in the morning.

Nicaragua’s interior ministry said 100 people were freed but did not give details on their condition.

Nicaragua has been in a deep political crisis since President Daniel Ortega attempted social security reform last April, leading to massive protests. The ensuing chaos put the poor Central American nation in recession.

Ortega, a Cold War-era former guerilla fighter elected in 2006, unleashed a government crackdown. Some 320 people were killed and more than 600 imprisoned, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In retaliation, the United States has ramped up sanctions on Ortega’s allies and family and limited Nicaragua’s access to financing. U.S. President Donald Trump said this month “the days of socialism” were numbered in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.

Television images showed mini-buses apparently carrying released prisoners in the streets of the capital, Managua.

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Another rights group said some of the released prisoners would remain under house arrest.

One of the buses carried marathon runner Alex Vanegas, an outspoken Ortega critic arrested in November.

“I’ll keep running for freedom in Nicaragua, I don’t care if they imprison me again,” Vanegas shouted from the window of the vehicle.

Witnessed by the Roman Catholic Church, talks took place between the government, business representatives, students and opposition politicians, seeking a resolution to the crisis.

Ortega did not take part.

Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, the Apostolic Nuncio to Nicaragua, read a statement at the end of the talks saying that 12 issues were discussed, and that there had been agreement on nine of them. He did not give details.

The talks are due to resume on Thursday.

The government’s last attempt at dialogue with the opposition was in May, but the talks collapsed when protesters demanded early elections.The protests faded under the crackdown, but independent journalists, rights groups and political activists report ongoing harassment and arrests that have led many to flee the country. The economy contracted by 4 percent in 2018.

Lawmakers from Ortega’s Sandinista party on Wednesday approved a law raising taxes, the Congress TV station showed. The law had been opposed by businesses who argued they needed a stimulus to revive the economy.

The opposition is calling for electoral reform and justice for those killed in the protests, but the most pressing demand is the release of prisoners, opposition leader Angel Rocha said last week.

Reporting by Ismael Lopez; writing by Julia Love; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Grant McCool and Sonya Hepinstall