Nicaragua detains business union leaders as crackdown widens

MANAGUA (AFP) – Nicaragua on Thursday (Oct 21) arrested the top two leaders of the country’s business owners’ union, police said, bringing the number of government opponents detained ahead of next month’s election to 39.

Superior Council of Private Enterprise president Michael Healy and vice-president Alvaro Vargas are being “investigated for the crime of money and asset laundering”, police said in a statement.

Since early June, Nicaragua’s authorities have arrested a host of opposition figures, including seven aspiring presidential hopefuls, as well as journalists and business, social and political leaders.

The detainees face charges of trying to overthrow President Daniel Ortega, treason and threatening Nicaragua’s sovereignty by, among other things, “applauding” sanctions and “inciting foreign interference”.

Healy and Vargas are being investigated “for carrying out acts that threaten independence, sovereignty and self-determination, inciting foreign interference in internal affairs, requesting military interventions (and) planning terrorist acts with financing from foreign powers”, the police said.

A court ordered them to be held in detention for 90 days while the investigation is carried out, the Public Ministry, the country’s equivalent of the prosecutor’s office, said in a statement. Healy’s predecessor, Jose Aguerri, was arrested in July for conspiracy to undermine sovereignty.

The business union condemned the arrests, which it said “violate the fundamental rights established in Nicaragua’s Constitution” and said such detentions “must cease immediately”.

Critics say the wave of arrests is designed to remove any realistic competition from standing against Mr Ortega, 75, in the Nov 7 election.

Detainees have been held under a controversial law approved last December that has been widely denounced as a means of freezing out challengers and silencing opponents. Family members of those held say the detainees are suffering isolation, daily interrogations, threats and hunger.

On Tuesday, the influential National Coalition of political and social groups called for an election boycott.

The Washington-based Organisation of American States on Wednesday demanded the “immediate release” of all opposition figures in Nicaragua.

Mr Ortega, a former left-wing guerrilla leader, has been in power since 2007 and is seeking a fourth consecutive term.

In 2014, during his second term, the National Assembly, dominated by his Sandinista National Liberation Front party, approved a constitutional amendment to remove term limits, paving the way for Mr Ortega to remain in power indefinitely.

Healy was arrested shortly after leaving the offices of the Public Ministry, where he had been summoned for an “interview” that did not take place and which had been rescheduled, he told reporters waiting outside the building.

When he got into his vehicle, he was followed by armed policemen on two motorcycles.

Sociologist Oscar Rene Vargas said the government is not leaving “any opportunity for a negotiated solution” to the crisis in the country.

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