Witnesses Testify to Torture by Nicaraguan Dictatorship at Hearing on Imprisoned Catholic Bishop

The Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF), also joined in the push for the Nicaraguan dictatorship to release Bishop Álvarez this week.

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. (photo: Alliance Defending Freedom International)

At a congressional hearing on Thursday, members of Congress and human rights activists urged Nicaragua dictator Daniel Ortega to immediately release imprisoned Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who they said is being mistreated and possibly tortured.

The hearing, which was held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations and chaired by New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith, was titled “An Urgent Appeal to Let Bishop Álvarez Go.”

Among the witnesses testifying were several Nicaraguan exiles who had undergone or witnessed the inhumane treatment of political prisoners by the Ortega regime. 

Mike Finnan, a representative for Smith, told CNA that the identities of these witnesses were kept secret “for their safety and the safety of their families.”

Smith said during the hearing that Bishop Álvarez, the 56-year-old bishop of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, “is an innocent man enduring unspeakable suffering.” 

The regime, run by Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, has been targeting the Catholic Church in the country. Smith said that “bishops and priests as well as worshippers have been harassed and detained” and that the international community “can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening to the people of Nicaragua, including and especially to people of faith.”

Bishop Álvarez, a beloved bishop in Nicaragua and a critic of the Ortega-Murillo regime’s human rights violations, was arrested by Nicaraguan authorities on Aug. 19, 2022. After refusing to go into exile he was convicted of treason on Feb. 10 and sentenced to over 26 years in prison.

For most of the time since then, Bishop Álvarez has been kept in Nicaragua’s Modelo prison, which is known for its particularly cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners, according to testimony given by Nicaraguan witnesses on Thursday.

A former prisoner of the Ortega-Murillo regime was among those who testified during Thursday’s hearing. The witness, who was exiled to the U.S. and arrived in the country in February, testified that while he was in prison he was mistreated by authorities and underwent more than 30 interrogations in which “they blackmailed me and threatened the lives of my relatives.”

“They wanted me to declare that the bishop was a member of an organization that wanted to promote a coup d’état against Daniel Ortega and that he received money from the U.S. government and the European Union,” the witness said.

Another witness who testified during the hearing, a parent of a Nicaraguan political prisoner, shared how on a visit to Modelo prison, she found young prisoners tortured and maimed and kept in poor, unsanitary conditions.

“There were some young men, maybe 15, 16 years old, you could see the tortures they had been subjected to,” the witness said. “I remember that one of them lifted up his pants and showed me his calf, it had been burned with acid; he could not bend the fingers of his hands due to the tortures.”

In response to demands for proof that Bishop Álvarez is still alive, the Nicaraguan dictatorship’s Ministry of the Interior released new video and images of the bishop on Tuesday.

In a Nov. 28 press release, the Ministry of the Interior stated that the video and photos show that “the conditions of [Bishop Álvarez’s] confinement are preferential and that the regimen of doctor’s appointments is strictly complied with as well as family visits, the sending and receiving of packages, contrary to what slanderous campaigns try to make you believe.”

According to Smith, however, the video of Bishop Álvarez released this week by the government of Nicaragua “raises serious questions and concerns about his well-being.”

Smith told CNA on Friday that he is going to continue pressuring the Ortega regime to release the bishop and cease its persecutions through increased sanctions. 

He said that the video reminded him of a visit he made to a communist gulag under the Soviet Union in which prison officials tried to convince him that the detainees were well-fed and happy by staging food and forcing them to smile. 

Though the video shows seemingly comfortable chairs and couches and food on a table, he said that witnesses who survived imprisonment by the Nicaraguan government informed him that “none of that’s real.”

“It’s all one big fat façade of disinformation because they live a horrible, horrible life in prison and with beatings and other kinds of maltreatment,” Smith said. 

“He has lost weight; is he ill?” Smith asked during the hearing. “Is he being provided proper nutrition and basic medical care? We have no idea what is going on day to day.”

Throughout his captivity, Smith said, Bishop Álvarez has shown incredible courage and fortitude.

“I am in awe of his courage, faithfulness, and kindness,” Smith said. “And I know so many others in Congress, House, Senate, Democrat, Republican, people in the White House, we’re in awe of his goodness and his extraordinary strength. Bishop Álvarez deserves to be respected and revered and free, not persecuted and incarcerated.”

“We’re really going to keep ratcheting up the pressure,” Smith went on. “I’ve been asking to go and visit with him in prison to ascertain for myself and anyone who goes with me, his welfare, his whereabouts … and the biggest hope would be to walk out with him as a released prisoner.” 

What Are Other Groups Saying?

The Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF), also joined in the push for the Nicaraguan dictatorship to release Bishop Álvarez this week.

Kristina Hjelkrem, an ADF Latin America legal counsel, said in a Thursday statement that the group was “grateful to the subcommittee for raising the critical issue of religious persecution in Nicaragua and for hosting this vital congressional hearing.”

“Bishop Álvarez has been harassed and unjustly imprisoned by the Nicaraguan government for simply fulfilling his duties as a Catholic bishop,” Hjelkrem went on. “No person should be punished or prosecuted for expressing their faith.”

Deborah Ullmer, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean for the National Democratic Institute, also testified at the hearing. She said Álvarez “has become the courageous face of resistance in Nicaragua.”

Ullmer said Bishop Álvarez’s imprisonment violates several international human rights laws and agreements and suggested several actions the U.S. could take to pressure the regime to release the bishop.

Among her suggestions, she said the U.S. should impose stricter sanctions on Nicaraguan officials and Nicaragua’s central bank. She also said that the U.S. should work more closely with friendly Latin American countries “to advance high-level regional dialogue toward a democratic transition.”

“The Ortega-Murillo regime continues to dismantle democratic institutions, erase the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, and consolidate its dictatorial power,” Ullmer said. “It is essential to call out the ongoing crimes against humanity and violations of fundamental human rights endured by Nicaraguans, including Bishop Álvarez.”

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