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NICARAGUA: US Congress hearing for unjustly imprisoned Catholic Bishop

 Bishop Rolando Álvarez (Photo: ADF International)

NICARAGUA: US Congress held a hearing for unjustly imprisoned Nicaraguan Catholic Bishop

  • Foreign Affairs subcommittee heard testimony on case of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, sentenced to 26 years in prison for preaching on the human rights violations perpetrated by the Nicaraguan government.
  • ADF International, which petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of the bishop, submitted a statement for the hearing record.

ADF  – (30.11.2023) – Members of the House Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations hosted a hearing  titled “An Urgent Appeal to Let Bishop Álvarez go”. Witness and expert testimony was provided on the ongoing human rights crisis in Nicaragua. US Members of congress, including Congressman Chris Smith (R-New Jersey), Congresswoman Susan Wild (D-Pennsylvania), and Congresswoman Maria Salazar (R-Florida) led and asked questions during the hearing that featured testimonies from three members of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church, who served as anonymous witnesses for their safety.

 

ADF International, which has submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of the bishop regarding violations of his rights to religious freedom and freedom of expression, has also submitted a statement to the record regarding legal abuses during his sham conviction and greater human rights violations of his case.

 

“We are grateful to the subcommittee for raising the critical issue of religious persecution in Nicaragua and for hosting this vital congressional hearing,” said Kristina Hjelkrem, legal counsel for Latin America for ADF International, and lead lawyer on the bishop’s case.

 

Hjelkrem continued: “Bishop Álvarez has been harassed and unjustly imprisoned by the Nicaraguan government for simply fulfilling his duties as a Catholic bishop. No person should be punished or prosecuted for expressing their faith, and we are thankful to the US Congress members who are joining us in advocating for the rights of Bishop Álvarez and all Nicaraguans whose rights have been violated. We will continue to seek justice for the bishop, and hopefully, put an end to the suppression of religious freedom in Nicaragua.”

 

“The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening to the people of Nicaragua”

 

A part of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations has oversight of issues and legislation pertaining to the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other matters relating to internationally-recognized human rights.

 

The subcommittee hosted today’s hearing, which included testimony from two anonymous prisoners of conscience who were exiled from Nicaragua, and testimony from a mother of a Nicaraguan prisoner of conscience, who also remained anonymous. The hearing also featured testimony from Deborah Ullmer, the National Democratic Institute’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

 

“Bishop Álvarez is an innocent man enduring unspeakable suffering. Today, we appeal to President Daniel Ortega: release him from prison, let Bishop Álvarez go,” said Congressman Chris Smith, who also serves as the subcommittee chairman. “The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening to the people of Nicaragua, including, and especially, people of faith. Bishop Álvarez deserves to be respected and revered and free, not persecuted and incarcerated. We again appeal to President Daniel Ortega, let Bishop Álvarez go. Release him from prison. The United States needs to act quickly and use every single tool at our disposal,” he further stated.

 

“What is inconceivable is that Daniel Ortega meddles or interferes with the Catholic Church. He’s holding as a prisoner one of the most important members of the Catholic Church of Nicaragua for more than a year now,” said Congresswoman Maria Salazar of Florida.

 

The hearing can be viewed in its entirety here.

 

Imprisoned for the faith 

 

The persecution of Bishop Álvarez by Nicaraguan authorities started on August 4, 2022, when police agents prevented him from leaving his residence, the Episcopal Curia of Matagalpa, to celebrate Mass at a nearby cathedral. The Bishop, along with seminarians, priests, and a cameraman, was forcibly detained by police in the diocesan offices for 15 days.

 

Later, on August 19, 2022, police forcibly entered the residence, and arbitrarily arrested Bishop Álvarez and seven other members of the Catholic Church without a warrant. Bishop Álvarez then was placed under house arrest by authorities.

 

Following the arrest, Nicaraguan authorities opened a criminal investigation into the bishop for the crimes of “undermining national integrity” and “propagation of false news through information and communication technologies”. Bishop Álvarez later was found guilty of these crimes, along with “aggravated obstruction of functions” and “disobedience of contempt for authority”.

 

The Bishop’s charges were based on sermons that he had delivered from the pulpit as a result of what he considered a religious duty to preach on God-given freedoms and about governmental human rights violations. He was convicted after a trial that he did not know was taking place, and at which he, therefore, could not testify nor cross-examine witnesses.

 

Bishop Álvarez was deprived of his nationality and citizenship rights according to a problematic national law, and sentenced to 26 years and 4 months in prison, in addition to being ordered to pay 800 days worth of fines, amounting to almost $5000 USD. He now has been held in prison for 9 months, deprived of contact with legal representation.

 

In a clear media stunt aimed at diverting the international community’s attention ahead of today’s congressional hearing, the day immediately after the notice of the hearing was made, Nicaraguan authorities published a press release with the following statement, along with pictures and videos of Bishop Álvarez: “the conditions of confinement are preferential and the regime of medical consultations, family visits, remission and receipt of packages is strictly complied with, contrary to what slanderous campaigns pretend to make believe”. Reliable sources assure that Álvarez’s prison conditions are terrifying.

 

An appeal to the Managua Court of Appeals against the conviction resulting from the sham trial was refused on procedural grounds for failing to challenge specific parts of the judgment, which the court had not provided. Further, the Bishop initially was denied his lawyer of choice, and his legal representation since has been refused basic information about his case. There is no further effective legal recourse available to him in Nicaragua.

 

HRWF Comment: Database of FORB Prisoners

 

Christians – Catholics 

Rolando ALVAREZ

Leonardo Guevara GUTIERREZ

Further reading about FORB in Nicaragua on HRWF website





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NICARAGUA: USCIRF condemns 26-year prison sentence for Bishop Álvarez

NICARAGUA: USCIRF condemns Nicaragua’s 26-year prison sentence for Bishop Rolando Álvarez

USCIRF (14.02.2023) – The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemns the Nicaraguan government’s sentencing of Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez to 26 years in prison for the alleged crimes of “’undermining national security and sovereignty, spreading [fake news] through information technology, obstructing an official in the performance of his duties, [and] aggravated disobedience or contempt of authority.’” The Ortega regime imprisoned Bishop Álvarez for criticizing Nicaragua’s religious freedom conditions after holding him under house arrest for six months and depriving him of due process.

“We are appalled that Bishop Álvarez will now serve 26 years in prison for raising concerns about Nicaragua’s many religious freedom violations. This miscarriage of justice will not be forgotten,” said USCIRF Commissioner Frederick A. Davie. “USCIRF urges the U.S. government to call on the Nicaraguan government to release Bishop Álvarez immediately and unconditionally.”

The Nicaraguan government, led by President Daniel Ortega and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo, has persecuted the Catholic Church with increasing vigor over the past five years. In 2022, the regime targeted clergy, eliminated Church-affiliated organizations, and placed restrictions on religious observances. Additionally, the government arrested and/or imprisoned nearly a dozen Catholic clergy and laypeople in 2022, including Bishop Álvarez.

On February 9, 2023, the regime released from prison and forced into exile 222 political prisoners who had been indefinitely held in jails, prisons, and under house arrest, including eight religious prisoners featured in USCIRF’s Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Victims List. Authorities reportedly gave Bishop Álvarez the opportunity to join the exiled prisoners, but he chose to stay in his native country to be with the Catholic community under repression by the Ortega regime. In addition to the prison sentence, he will be fined and stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship.

“While the release of the 222 political prisoners was a welcome gesture by the Nicaraguan government, it is not enough. The subsequent sentencing of Bishop Álvarez demonstrates that the regime’s campaign against the Catholic Church will not soon abate,” said USCIRF Commissioner Frank Wolf. “The U.S. government should use every tool at their disposal to encourage the restoration of democracy and human rights in Nicaragua.”

USCIRF recently published a country update on religious freedom conditions in Nicaragua in 2022, held a hearing on the “Crackdown on Religious Freedom in Nicaragua,” and discussed the situation in an episode of the USCIRF Spotlight Podcast.

Photo: uscirf.gov


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