Six churchmen, diocesan communicator sentenced to 10 years in prison in Nicaragua

A woman prayed during a Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua, Nov. 21, 2019. Six churchmen and a diocesan communicator were sentenced Feb. 6, 2023, to 10 years in prison on conspiracy charges by a Nicaraguan court as the Central American country’s increasingly tyrannical regime continues its persecution of the Catholic Church. (OSV News Photo by Oswaldo Rivas, Reuters)

By David Agren

MEXICO CITY — Six churchmen and a diocesan communicator were sentenced to 10 years in prison on conspiracy charges by a Nicaraguan court as the Central American country’s increasingly tyrannical regime continues its persecution of the Catholic Church.

Fathers Ramiro Tijerino, José Luis Díaz and Sadiel Eugarrios; Deacon Raúl Antonio Vega; seminarians Darvin Leiva and Melkin Centeno; and cameraman Sergio Cárdenas — all from the Diocese of Matagalpa — were convicted in late January on charges of conspiracy to undermine national integrity and spreading false information.

They were sentenced Feb. 6 after a secret trial in which they were denied legal representation of their choosing.

“With this most recent sentence, the regime was exposed committing crimes with impunity,” the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center said in a statement. “This is an insult to the law, an insult to people’s intelligence, and an insult to the international community and international organizations for the protection of human rights.”

Nicaraguan lawyer Yader Morazán, who went into exile in 2018, said on Twitter that the defendants “had to beg the judge in writing so she would allow them to have a breviary.”

Another priest, Father Óscar Danilo Benavidez, pastor in the community of Mulukuku, who was arrested Aug. 14, was sentenced Feb. 5 on similar charges of conspiracy and spreading false information.

The sentences highlighted the increasingly harsh repression against the Catholic Church from the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

The couple — who retained power after Ortega won his fourth consecutive election in 2021, which international observers branded rigged for having disqualified all viable opponents — accused priests and bishops of being “terrorists” and “coup mongers.” Parishes provided sanctuary for protesters taking to the streets during the national political protests of 2018; priests have accompanied the families of political prisoners; and the bishops unsuccessfully attempted to convene a national dialogue with the goal of finding an exit from the crisis.

The seven men from Matagalpa were detained along with Bishop Rolando Álvarez during an August 2022 raid on the diocesan headquarters, where they were holed up after the bishop condemned the closure of Catholic media outlets. Bishop Álvarez had been the country’s most outspoken Catholic prelate prior to his arrest.

Álvarez, who has been held under house arrest — while the others arrested with him languished in the notorious El Chipote prison, which human rights organizations condemn for its deplorable conditions — also is on trial on charges of conspiracy to undermine national integrity and spreading false information.

Independent Nicaraguan news organization Confidencial reported a decision in Bishop Álvarez’s trial is expected Feb. 15 — six weeks earlier than previously anticipated.

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