Nicaraguan protesters say were mistreated during detention


Managua (AFP)

Nicaraguan opposition members freed from jail ahead of ongoing peace talks greeted their release with shouts of joy and by singing the national anthem.

But days later -- detained under house arrest -- many feel they have traded one prison for another.

"I don't feel free at all," said Yolanda Sanchez, one of the 100 or so prisoners released ahead of Wednesday's start of talks between President Daniel Ortega's government and the opposition coalition.

Sanchez says she was mistreated, humiliated and threatened during seven months in detention after attending an anti-government demonstration.

A judge sentenced her to six years in prison for illegally carrying weapons and making homemade bombs for protesters, charges she denies.

Under the conditions of their house arrest, those released have no right to leave, work, or in some cases to receive visits.

"They told us that we were going to be surveilled, filmed, recorded via our telephones or via our neighbors," said Sanchez, 30, sitting in her modest home in Managua's San Jose Oriental neighborhood,

"Attending a civic march does not make us delinquents," said her 33-year-old sister, Patricia, who was detained with her.

-Rape threats -

Sanchez was close to tears when she recalled her interrogation and the threats by female officers to cut off her hands, take away her daughter, and their assurances she would be raped in prison.

"For me, it was the most horrible thing I've ever been through," she said.

Carlos Silva's joy at being released was also short-lived.

"Prison staff came and said: 'The ones we call need to get ready, they will be freed.' Then everyone started celebrating and shouting, we couldn't believe it," said Silva, held for six months in Managua's overcrowded El Chipote detention center.

"I still don't consider myself free, I feel like they are going to watch me more, I feel scared," said Silva, a 43-year-old former basketball star from Managua's San Judas barrio.

"Some prison staff insulted us and undressed us, just for the sake of it. If you sing the (Nicaraguan) national anthem, they would take you to the courtyard and cuff you to a post," said Silva.

Silva himself was made to run naked in front of watching armed prison guards, he said. "I thought they were going to shoot me."

Leftist former rebel leader Ortega ordered a nationwide crackdown in which 325 people were killed and more than 750 arrested after months of protests that began in April and turned into widespread calls for the 73-year-old to step down.

Many of those jailed were rounded up after demonstrations, though they insist they were the victims, not the perpetrators, of violence rights groups say was carried out unofficial Sandinista youth militias used by the government to smash protests.

- 'Stripped, insulted, beaten' -

Silva was arrested in August when he was returning home from a basketball game.

He was sentenced to two years for exposing people to danger and obstructing a street, but he says his only sin was to participate "in almost all the demonstrations."

In La Modelo prison outside Managua, he spent six months imprisoned in a cell with 130 other protesters.

He said they were regularly stripped, insulted and beaten when they sang the national anthem, which has become a symbol of opposition defiance in Nicaragua.

Silva doesn't believe Ortega is sincere about the talks, which are being mediated by the Catholic Church.

"He is a dictator. He's just doing it to win time," he said.

The vast majority of the 770 people rounded up during the protests remain in prison, meaning that for some families the anguish goes on.

"We are all waiting here for our relatives to be freed, because they haven't committed any crime," said Juan Gutierrez, among a group of people gathered outside Jorge Navarro prison in Managua.

"Their only crime was to demonstrate against the government."