A judge in Nicaragua has ruled on Tuesday that a Catholic bishop, known for criticising the government of President Daniel Ortega, will stand trial on charges of conspiracy and spreading false information.
Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who serves the inland diocese of Matagalpa, has been under house arrest since August in what international rights groups consider an attempt to stifle dissent.
Álvarez’s arrest and prosecution come as part of a years-long crackdown following anti-government protests that began in April 2018, when student demonstrators took to the streets to denounce plans to cut pensions and raise taxes.
The government arrested 1,614 people in the wake of those initial demonstrations, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Another 328 were killed.
Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops attempted to intervene as mediators during the conflict, helping to organise a first round of peace talks between Ortega’s government and the opposition, starting on May 16, 2018. But by the end of the month, the peace talks had failed, with pro-government forces opening fire on protesters.
Ortega has since sparred with the country’s bishops, calling the protests a foreign-backed “coup”.
Several prominent dissidents have also been arrested in the intervening years, including former journalist Cristiana Chamorro, who was seen as a frontrunner to challenge Ortega in Nicaragua’s 2021 presidential elections.
She was charged with money laundering and ultimately barred from running, as were at least six other presidential hopefuls. Ortega, who had been president since 2007, handily won re-election to a fourth term that November, with upwards of 75 percent of the vote.
Rights groups and prominent Western governments, however, have denied the election’s legitimacy. The foreign minister of Spain, for instance, called the vote a “farce”, and US President Joe Biden called the proceedings a “pantomime election that was neither free nor fair”.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Ortega once again took aim at Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops, calling them “terrorists” who worked in the “service of the Yankees”.
“In any other country in the world, they would be on trial,” Ortega said. This past March, his government took the step of expelling the Vatican’s top diplomat in Nicaragua.
Bishop Álvarez had been outspoken against Ortega’s regime, criticising the violence that left hundreds dead since 2018. This past May, Álvarez announced he would initiate a hunger strike to protest what he called police harassment against himself and other members of the Catholic Church.
He accused the police of following him in the street and surrounding his home. He promised that his fast would be “indefinite” so long as the government refused to respect his “constitutional rights, civil rights [and] free transit”.
“We, as the Church in Nicaragua, are undergoing persecution,” Álvarez said in a statement. “What happened to me yesterday was persecution.”
In August, police launched a pre-dawn raid on Álvarez’s church residence in Matagalpa, arresting him on charges of “organising violent groups”.
Five other priests were in the residence at that time, some of whom are now in the notorious Chipote prison, an institution that human rights groups accuse of torture.
Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, has expressed “concern and sorrow” over the situation in Nicaragua, saying: “I would like to express my conviction and my hope that, through an open and sincere dialogue, the basis for a respectful and peaceful coexistence might still be found.”
In December, a Nicaraguan court ordered Álvarez to remain under house arrest pending trial. Silvio José Báez, another outspoken leader in Nicaragua’s Catholic Church, condemned the ruling on Twitter.
“What the Nicaraguan dictatorship is doing against my brother bishop, Bishop Rolando J Álvarez, is a crime,” he wrote. “Roland, you are not alone! We are with you, we pray for you, and we demand your freedom.”
Báez lives in exile, according to the Reuters news agency, with other priests who have fled Nicaragua.