Nicaraguan farmer who protested Ortega gets 216-year prison sentence

MANAGUA (Reuters) - A farm leader who helped lead protests last year against President Daniel Ortega was sentenced on Monday to 216 years in prison, days after business leaders asked the government to release inmates considered political prisoners.

FILE PHOTO: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Vice-President Rosario Murillo greet supporters during a march called "We walk for peace, with faith and hope," in honour of Mons. Oscar Arnulfo Romero, in Managua, Nicaragua October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

A judge sentenced Medardo Mairena after he was convicted last December of terrorism, murder and organized crime, charges he denied. Before he was arrested last July, he was among the opposition members who participated in the failed dialogue with the government.

More than 320 people died in the protests last year against Ortega, after government supporters and police opened fire on crowds. Street rallies have since tapered off, and the government has clamped down on opposition media and organizations seen as supporting the protests.

Over the weekend, the government and business groups met in an attempt to restart talks to end the crisis that has severely damaged the poor Central American country’s economy. The business groups demanded the release of more than 600 people they consider to be political prisoners.

Mairena is a leader of a movement opposed to a stalled Chinese-backed project to build a waterway connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, rivaling the Panama Canal.

Despite the sentence, the country’s constitution establishes that no Nicaraguan can spend more than 30 years in prison.

“It is an exaggerated, ridiculous and political sentence,”

Mairena’s lawyer, Julio Montenegro, told a news conference. “We are going to appeal ... and go to international courts.”

Judge Edgard Altamirano ruled that Mairena was the mastermind of the murders of five policemen who died during a protest in a municipality in the south of the country and the kidnapping of two other officers.

Several organizations, including the United Nations, have criticized the “excessive use” of force to control the protests and blame the Ortega government for most of the reported deaths. The leftist ex-guerrilla says he is the victim of an attempted coup.

Reporting by Ismael Lopez; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Peter Cooney