Spain offers freed Nicaraguans citizenship after move to make them stateless

MADRID/MANAGUA, Feb 10 (Reuters) - The Spanish government offered citizenship to more than 200 Nicaraguan political prisoners who were freed and flown to the United States on Thursday, Spain's top diplomat said on Friday.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares made the announcement to Servimedia news agency, following the surprise release of 222 Nicaraguan prisoners later expelled to the United States.

After their release, lawmakers loyal to authoritarian President Daniel Ortega voted to strip them of their Nicaraguan citizenship, which could thwart plans to return home someday.

But since it requires a constitutional change, a second vote is needed, likely not until 2024.

In the interview, Albares hailed Ortega's decision to free his jailed critics, many of them prominent opposition politicians, journalists and religious figures.

He added that Spain stood ready to receive others, noting that Madrid's decision had been made "after news reports that proceedings had begun to declare them stateless."

Spanish authorities will reach out to the prisoners, who were allowed into the United States under a temporary humanitarian visa, so they can formally apply for citizenship.

Several opposition presidential candidates were among the released political prisoners, including several who sought to challenge Ortega in a 2021 election only to be arrested and detained in an unprecedented dragnet and criminalizing of political dissent.

Most international observers declared the 2021 vote a sham.

On Thursday, Ortega described the prisoner release as a push to expel criminals who sought to harm Nicaragua, while the United States referred to the move as a "constructive step" that could lead to further dialogue between Washington and Managua.

Prominent Nicaraguan cultural figures were quick to praise Spain's quick action.

In a post on Twitter, renowned novelist and essayist Sergio Ramirez who decades ago served as Ortega's vice president, described it as a "beautiful gesture," adding that those released "will have a homeland as long as Nicaragua does not recover its freedom and democracy."

Reporting by Elena Rodriguez and Andrei Khalip in Madrid and Ismael in Managua; Additional reporting by Raul Cortes Fernandez; Editing by Hugh Lawson, David Alire Garcia and Sandra Maler

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