Nicaraguan authorities have detained at least five more opposition leaders, as a sweeping crackdown by President Daniel Ortega’s government in advance of November elections has drawn rebuke from the European Union’s top diplomat.
In a statement on Tuesday, police said they detained three farmworker leaders – Medardo Mairena, who planned a presidential bid, Pedro Mena, and Freddy Navas – on Monday, accusing them of murdering and kidnapping police officers and civilians, armed robbery and extortion, among other crimes.
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Police also arrested student leaders Lesther Aleman and Max Jerez over accusations of armed robbery, kidnapping, rape and other crimes.
The police said all the crimes were committed during a wave of anti-government protests in 2018, which faced harsh reprisals from Nicaraguan security forces and in which about 230 people died, according to rights groups.
The detained leaders are among more than two dozen presidential hopefuls, opposition leaders and business figures who have been arrested during the past month amid an unrelenting crackdown by Ortega’s government.
The longtime president has justified the arrests by saying his administration was prosecuting criminals who were plotting a coup against him.
Ortega has used “treason” laws to detain almost all of his potential rivals in the November 7 elections. “It’s absurd to set them free. Everything we’re doing, we’re doing it by the book,” he said last month.
But civil society and human rights groups have accused the 75-year-old – who governed Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 and returned to power in 2007, winning two successive re-election bids since then – of increasing authoritarianism.
Aleman, one of the people arrested on Monday, was a leader of the 2018 protests who returned to Nicaragua after going into exile abroad. His relatively new Citizens for Freedom party has not selected its presidential candidate yet, but Aleman had said last week he planned to run.
“Ortega’s goal is not only to eliminate electoral competition by capturing the sixth presidential candidate, but also to head off civic resistance. He has arrested more than 20 political, civic, self-convened, student and peasant leaders,” Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Chamorro said on Twitter.
Chamorro, who fled to neighbouring Costa Rica in mid-June, is the brother of detained opposition leader Cristiana Chamorro.
On Tuesday, the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said “more restrictive” measures may be needed against Ortega’s Sandinista government.
“The situation has reached such an extreme that member states will have to study more concrete actions, and not just ‘enough already, Mr Ortega,'” Borrell told a session of the European Parliament.
The United States, as well as the Organization of American States (OAS), have condemned the wave of arrests, calling on the Nicaraguan government to stop threatening opposition figures and ensure free elections can be held.
Argentina and Mexico also withdrew their envoys to Nicaragua last month over the crackdown.