A Nicaraguan judge on Monday sentenced four Roman Catholic priests to 10 years behind bars in what critics maintain is part of President Daniel Ortega’s crackdown on dissent.
The priests were convicted in closed-door trials in which government-appointed defenders acted as the priests’ attorneys. The conspiracy charges against stem from long-standing government allegations that the church backed illegal pro-democracy protests.
The priests had worked with Matagalpa Bishop Rolando Álvarez, and one had been rector of the privately-run Juan Pablo II University in the capital of Managua.
Álvarez is under house arrest on charges of conspiracy and “damaging the Nicaraguan government and society,” and is set to be sentenced soon.
Two seminary students and a cameraman who worked for the diocese were also sentenced Monday. All six defendants were arrested last year, and all were stripped of the right to ever hold political office.
The Nicaraguan Human Rights Center described the sentences as “a legal aberration.”
“This is an insult to the law, an insult to people’s intelligence, an insult to the international community and the international agencies for the protection of human rights,” the center said in a statement Tuesday.
Alvarez, the bishop, had been a key religious voice in discussions of Nicaragua’s future since 2018, when a wave of protests against Ortega’s government led to a sweeping crackdown on opponents.
The government arrested dozens of opposition leaders in 2021, including seven potential presidential candidates. They were sentenced to prison last year in quick trials that also were closed to the public.
Ortega, a former Marxist guerilla, has contended the pro-democracy protests were carried out with foreign backing and with the support of the Catholic Church.
Last year, he expelled the nuns from Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity religious order and the papal nuncio, the Vatican’s top diplomat in Nicaragua.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.