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Nicaragua's New Anti-Terrorism Law Thwarts Protesters, Activists Say


To Nicaragua now, where the government there has used brutal methods to try to end a political crisis that has engulfed the Central American country since April - hundreds have been killed, thousands detained, many of whom claim they were tortured in prison. President Daniel Ortega isn't showing any signs of easing the crackdown. In fact, he recently signed a new law that will let him double down on his efforts. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Nicaragua.


CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Dona Fe opens the metal door to the small plot of land where she lives about an hour outside of Managua with her two grown sons, their wives and children. Each family has a small separate dwelling made of wood and a tin roof on the bare dirt floor. She says last month, a pickup truck filled with masked men kicked open her door and shot their guns into the air. Everyone hit the ground.

DONA FE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "One of the men screamed at me, get inside. Get inside. He grabbed my son and started kicking him. I tried to stop him. He pointed his gun at my feet and said he was going to fire.

FE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "That's when I got really scared, and I ran inside." The masked men took both her sons. She's been told that they're charged with terrorism. She asks we don't use her real name. She's terrified the men will come back for her. She insists her sons - no one in her family has ever participated in criminal activities or in anti-government protests. That's until now.


UNIDENTIFIED VENDOR: (Shouting) Libertad, libertad...

KAHN: At this recent anti-government march, there she was - her face covered, demanding the release of political prisoners. According to human rights groups, more than 300 people have been killed and hundreds more arrested in the unrest that has engulfed the country for more than four months as demands for President Ortega to leave office have escalated.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Most of those arrested are held here at the Modelo prison, about 30 minutes outside Managua. Vendors line the streets, selling everything from water, tortillas and toothbrushes for relatives to bring to those held inside. Medardo Mairena, a leader of a nationwide peasant group, is a prisoner. He was arrested at the Managua airport before boarding a plane to the U.S. on July 23. His brother, Jose Alfredo Mairena, has only been able to see him once since then.

JOSE ALFREDO MAIRENA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "My brother told me they had beaten him, hit him in the head, in the chest and made him kneel for long periods of time," says Mairena. The government is charging him with terrorism under a new law passed last month by Ortega's controlled Congress. It covers a broad category of crimes, everything from financing terrorist activities to damaging property and participating in armed conflict. The sentence, if convicted, is up to 20 years in prison.

VILMA NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Vilma Nunez, head of the non-governmental Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, says Daniel Ortega has converted Nicaragua into one big prison. She says more than 2,000 people have been arrested and hundreds more remain in jail under the law, which she says criminalizes peaceful opposition. But Paul Oquist, minister of Nicaragua's national policy, says human rights groups and the international press have distorted what is happening in Nicaragua with what he calls fake news. He says terrorists influenced and funded by foreigners are the ones responsible for the current violence.

PAUL OQUIST: And they will be prosecuted. If there's abuses on the side of the authorities, they should be prosecuted, too. Let the chips fall where they may.

KAHN: Oquist says the government is willing to return to the negotiating table. But that process, mediated by the Catholic Church, broke down weeks ago, after Ortega refused calls by opponents to move up elections to early next year.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: At a recent Sunday mass, Bishop Silvio Jose Baez, who tried to help mediate the talks, told his congregation that the government must stop its repression. He says instead of showing political will to end the crisis, they've tried to imprison and silence the people.

SILVIO JOSE BAEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But he says, "the evidence of their crimes is so clear, they will not be able to erase them."

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Managua, Nicaragua.


Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.