Women punished for praying aloud at Nicaraguan prison

OSWALDO RIVAS/AFP via Getty Images
OSWALDO RIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

Female inmates at La Esperanza prison in Nicaragua, including political detainees, have faced punitive measures for praying aloud. The women, held in the Women’s Holistic Penitentiary System in Tipitapa, have been denied outdoor access since mid-January, a stark change from their previous once-a-week allowance.

Some of the women have endured physical abuse during interrogations, evident from bruises on their limbs, according to the U.K.-based group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which says restrictions extend to the prohibition of Bibles and writing materials for political prisoners, contravening the Nelson Mandela Rules.

A 52-year-old choir director named Olesia Auxiliadora Muñoz Pavon, who is from Santa Ana Parish in Niquinohomo, Masaya Department, is among the incarcerated. Arrested on April 6, 2023, Muñoz Pavon, previously detained from August 2018 to June 2019 on unfounded charges, gained recognition for her hymn singing in prison.

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La Esperanza, notorious for overcrowding and lacking essential resources like drinking water, beds and medical care, confines up to 75 inmates in bunk-bed-lined cells, with some in solitary confinement. Reports from October 2023 by La Prensa Nicaragua highlighted modifications to maximum-security cells, effectively sealing off political prisoners.

Access to Nicaragua’s prisons has been restricted, with the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights having been barred since 2010 and the Red Cross expelled in 2023. The U.N. Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua released a report on Feb. 29, condemning the Nicaraguan government’s ongoing severe human rights abuses, equating them to crimes against humanity, and urged the release of all unjustly detained individuals.

Anna Lee Stangl, CSW’s Head of Advocacy, criticized the inhumane treatment of prisoners for practicing their faith, demanding adherence to the Nelson Mandela Rules and the release of all political detainees in Nicaragua. GHREN’s call for expanded international sanctions against those implicated in Nicaraguan human rights violations was reiterated by CSW.

Open Doors has also highlighted the escalating persecution of Christians in Nicaragua, especially since the 2018 anti-regime protests. The government’s crackdown has included arrests of Christian leaders, seizure of Christian properties and closures of Christian schools, TV stations and charities. Legal amendments have branded church leaders as terrorists, with the government aiming to control church finances.

The situation for Christians worsened with the Nicaraguan government’s actions against the Texas-based mission organization Mountain Gateway in January. Nine Nicaraguan pastors associated with Mountain Gateway were imprisoned for over a month on allegations of forming a criminal structure involved in money laundering and organized crime, alongside three U.S. missionaries.

Despite Mountain Gateway’s denial of these charges and adherence to legal protocols, the Nicaraguan government has revoked the registration of numerous nonprofit and faith-based organizations, often citing financial misconduct.

Mountain Gateway, which held several evangelistic events in Nicaragua, says it has complied with financial regulations and denies personal profit from ministry funds. The organization, expressing confusion over the legal actions, suggests political motives behind the government’s crackdown.

The Nicaraguan government’s closure of 342 religious organizations, including numerous Christian associations, under President Daniel Ortega’s regime reflects a pattern of religious and political repression.

An ideology in Nicaragua portrays President Ortega as being “anointed by God … for sacred Nicaragua.”

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