Nicaragua on Tuesday released dozens of protest leaders detained amid last year\’s deadly uprising against President Daniel Ortega, under a controversial new amnesty law that paves the way for fresh talks with the opposition.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that a total of 56 people "detained for crimes against common security and public tranquility" were released from prison and handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Video uploaded on social media showed several leaders being taken from prison aboard a Red Cross minibus, waving the Nicaraguan flag and shouting "Justice!"
Many were greeted with hugs and tears by family members waiting outside the prison near the capital Managua.
The Central American country plunged into crisis in April 2018 after widespread opposition protests broke out, and a brutal crackdown over the next four months by Ortega\’s troops left 325 people dead, 800 in prison and thousands in exile.
"We welcome the release of 56 political prisoners in Nicaragua," Organization of American States chief Luis Almagro said on Twitter.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights described it as "a concrete step forward by the State in the restoration of rights and guarantees in the country."
The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy opposition group has set the release of what it calls "political prisoners" as a condition for restarting talks with the government.
Nicaragua\’s political opposition called a general strike last month to pressure the government into observing its pledge to release all the prisoners by mid-June.
Lawmakers last weekend passed legislation granting amnesty to hundreds of political prisoners, most of them picked up during last year\’s protests.
A first batch of 50 prisoners were released on Monday.
However, in a measure decried by the opposition and rights groups, the law also gives amnesty to the police and security forces involved in the deadly crackdown.
– Staggered releases –
The government in February began the staggered release of several hundred prisoners into house arrest ahead of talks with the opposition that soon stalled.
Jose Pallais, a former foreign minister and delegate for the Justice and Democracy coalition in the peace talks, said he was expecting around 80 more political prisoners to be released.
"Now we have to tackle the deep problems, because the crisis has not gone away," said Pallais, anticipating the resumption of talks with Ortega\’s leftist government.
"We are going to resume negotiations" he said.
One of the country\’s leading clerics, Managua auxiliary bishop Silvio Baez, said on Twitter that he welcomed "with immense joy the news that so many Nicaraguans are out of prison whom should never have been there."
Baez took part in an early round of talks but was recalled to the Vatican earlier this year after receiving threats.
The powerful Catholic Church has brokered several rounds of peace talks between Ortega and opposition groups.
Talks with the government have stalled, notably due to Ortega\’s rejection of a key demand that he resign and bring forward elections slated for 2021.
The opposition accuses the 73-year-old former left-wing guerrilla leader, who first came to power in 1979 following the fall of the US-backed Somoza family dictatorship, of rights abuses and authoritarian leadership.
– Street parties –
Among those released Tuesday were peasant activists Medardo Mairena and Pedro Mena, a Nicaraguan-Belgian student Amaya Coppens, and journalists Lucia Pineda and Miguel Mora.
"We will continue reporting," said Pineda, who also holds Costa Rican nationality.
The return of student leaders Cristian Fajardo and Yubrank Suazo set off street parties in the town of Masaya, an opposition fiefdom 30 kilometers southeast of Managua.
Hundreds of people danced in the street amid music and slogans of "Yes You Could" and "the people united, will never be defeated."
Police patrolled nearby but there were no incidents reported.
In the streets of Managua, drivers honked horns to celebrate the releases, following a call from the opposition.
One of the protest leaders, Irlanda Jerez, described her release as "very emotional" but said: "they tortured me, they struck me, they fondled me sexually."
"But they could not touch my spirit. For the freedom of all Nicaraguans, we continue onwards."