Managua, Nicaragua – Police have detained more than 100 people in the Nicaraguan capital as protests erupted on Saturday to demand President Daniel Ortega release political prisoners jailed in last year’s violent crackdown.
Opposition groups called for what they hoped would be the first march since the demonstrations were banned after anti-government protests sparked a national crisis nearly a year ago.
Heavily armed police, which refused to authorise the march, and paramilitary troops on motorcycles descended on opposition gatherings in Managua on Saturday afternoon.
They wielded batons and wrestled some demonstrators into pickups as hundreds of protesters chanted slogans at a local mall.
The show of force came just one day after President Daniel Ortega released 50 political prisoners amid mounting international pressure and renewed calls to restart stalled peace talks with opposition groups.
The refusal to allow freedom of expression “contradicts what we need to continue the dialogue”, said Justina Orozco, an activist at the protest.
The National Police said it was obliged to protect public order and had taken 107 people into custody.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned what it said was police “repression” against protesters and journalists and called for a full account of the detained and wounded.
Officials with Ortega’s government could not be immediately reached.
Saturday’s protests marked the latest chapter in Nicaragua’s national crisis that began last April, when demonstrations against a since-dropped pension reform sparked a widespread anti-government movement targeting Ortega, a former Sandinista rebel.
Nicaraguan security forces responded with a violent clampdown with more than 325 people having been killed, according to the commission.
Opposition groups say 770 people they deem political prisoners were jailed, including on terrorism-related charges, according to human rights lawyer Julio Montenegro, who is representing nearly 80 of them
In addition, more than 50,000 are estimated to have fled to neighbouring Costa Rica and elsewhere.
Some protesters said the ongoing clampdown nearly a year after the crisis began spurred them to take to the streets.
Even those who did not participate said residents needed to pressure the government.
“I support it 100 percent,” said Yadira Cordoba, whose 15-year-old son was shot dead in a march last year and another has fled to Costa Rica.
The National Blue and White Unity movement called the march to be held on one of Managua’s busiest thoroughfares, called Carretera Masaya, an area dotted with restaurants and hotels.
At one petrol station, police with riot shields and batons swept through and sent journalists running.
At the upscale Metrocentro Mall, several hundred young protesters in blue stood in a car park and plaza, many with facemasks, chanting slogans and waving flags.
Police surrounded the mall and at one point swept inside the gates with batons leaving some protesters wounded, according to social media posts. One woman said she was beaten by paramilitary members on motorcycles in the car park.
The exact number of detainees on Saturday was still emerging. The National Blue and White Unity movement listed 60 people who had been arrested.
Authorities have also shut down some media outlets along with a few NGOs. The European Parliament recently called for sanctions on Nicaragua because of human rights abuses.
After opposition groups demanded the release of political prisoners to continue talks, Ortega’s government released 112 when the current round of talks began on February 27.
Ahead of the 2021 presidential elections, Ortega has said he would be willing to overhaul state institutions. On Friday, he released 50 more into house arrest.
Nicaragua’s Interior Department said the prisoners face charges such as crimes against public peace and security.