In a closed trial, Nicaragua’s government convicted seven church workers, including three priests, of conspiracy.
By David Agren, OSV News
(OSV News) — Four clergymen, two seminarians and a diocesan journalist were convicted in Nicaragua on charges of conspiracy to undermine national integrity and spreading false information, according to local media — charges the men denied and which critics condemned as an escalation of the persecution of the Catholic Church in the Central American country.
The seven individuals — three priests, two seminarians, a deacon and a cameraman — were found guilty Jan. 26 in a secretive trial, in which they were denied representation by lawyers of their choice.
Fathers Ramiro Tijerino, José Luis Díaz and Sadiel Eugarrios; Deacon Raúl Antonio Vega; seminarians Darvin Leiva and Melkin Centeno; and cameraman Sergio Cárdenas are expected to be sentenced Feb. 3, according to the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center. Prosecutors have asked the court for sentences of 10 years in prison.
The individuals were among 11 persons arrested in August 2022 along with Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa during a predawn police raid on the diocesan offices, where they had been holed up for 16 days. The men had joined Bishop Álvarez in protesting the closure of Catholic media outlets and the increasing tyranny of the government led by President Daniel Ortega.
Bishop Álvarez has been held under house arrest since his arrest. He was ordered to face similar charges as the newly convicted Catholics at a Jan. 10 hearing in Managua, the national capital.
The bishop had previously decried human rights abuses in Nicaragua, where the Ortega regime has cracked down on dissent, rigged elections in its favor, and closed independent media outlets.
Another priest, Father Óscar Benavides Dávila, was convicted Jan. 16 on charges of conspiracy to undermine national integrity and spreading false news. Nicaraguan media reported he was the first priest convicted on such charges.
The Catholic Church came into conflict with Ortega after providing spiritual support and protection to protesters taking to the streets in 2018, demanding the president’s ouster. Priests later accompanied the families of political prisoners.
Nicaragua has closed church media outlets and charitable projects, while also expelling Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag in March 2022.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said in December that Nicaragua was holding 225 political prisoners, often in deplorable conditions.
“Human rights defenders, journalists, clergy or those perceived to be political opponents, are arrested, harassed, intimidated,” Türk told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. “Some are prosecuted for the offenses of conspiracy to undermine national integrity or for ‘false news.’ All part of a systematized effort to stifle opposition and dissent.”
Featured image: A woman prays during a Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua, Nov. 21, 2019. Six churchmen and a diocesan journalist were convicted in a closed trial in Nicaragua Jan. 26, 2023, on charges of conspiracy as persecution of the Catholic Church escalates in the Central American country. (OSV News photo/Oswaldo Rivas, Reuters)