When Juan Lorenzo Holmann’s daughter came to see her father in prison, he had lost so much weight that she did not recognize him.
It was June last year and Holmann had shrunk from 78 kilograms (172 pounds) to about 65 kilograms (143 pounds) since he was jailed in August 2021.
The CEO of La Prensa, Nicaragua’s oldest newspaper, was suffering from a poor diet and lack of exercise, as he had spent months in cramped prison cells.
“When [my daughter] came in [to see me], she did not recognize me,” Holmann told VOA from the United States, where he is starting a new life in exile. “She later told her mother that she wanted to erase from her mind [the memory] of that visit. I was also very pallid because of the lack of sun.”
In February, Holmann was among 222 political leaders, priests, activists and other opposition figures who Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega released from prison and put on a plane to the United States, most without having a chance to contact their families.
After their surprise release, they were also stripped of their nationality.
In 2018, after a wave of street protests, security forces cracked down on the opposition demonstrations with force.
Ortega has called his opponents “traitors” whom he accuses of being behind the protests. He claims the unrest was a foreign-funded plot to overthrow him.
Spain was among the countries that offered its citizenship to the Nicaraguan exiles, and the U.S. granted the Nicaraguans a two-year temporary protection.
VOA attempted to contact the Nicaraguan Embassy in Madrid for comment but received no response.
For Holmann, every day he spent in El Chipote prison in Managua is etched on his mind.
“545 days,” he said without hesitation when asked how long he had spent in jail.
Holmann was held in a series of different cells with opposition political leaders, journalists and a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the U.S.
“We could not speak to other people in the same cell block. There was little communication with the guards. I only spoke with people who were sharing the cells with me,” he said.
El Chipote prison is the new wing of a notorious facility that was used by the Somoza dictatorship to hold opponents before the 1979 Sandinista revolution.
Authorities in Nicaragua detained Holmann and he was later convicted of money laundering, a charge he denied.
During that time, La Prensa, which was founded 97 years ago, announced it was moving its entire staff into exile after enduring repeated raids and legal threats.
Media commentators say the detention of Holmann was a political move to silence critical voices in the Central American state.
Holmann said he was denied basic human rights, like access to a lawyer during his trial. This was by order of the judge in the case, he said.
In prison, he had no warning that his wife or daughters were about to see him, he said, and sometimes did not see them for months at a time.
Holmann is married and has two daughters. His daughters are in the United States, while his wife remains in Nicaragua.
“At times, I went 90 days without seeing my family. On other occasions I was only told on the same day about the visits,” he remembered.
There were 12 visits from his family during his time in prison, he said.
Eight months in a cell
Conditions in the prison were uncomfortable. He was held in a cell measuring 5 meters (16 feet) by 5 meters (16 feet) for eight months, with barely enough room to walk.
“The cell had no shower. There was nothing outside. In terms of hygiene, you had to leave the cell to [clean yourself],” he said.
“In this cell of five meters square, there was space to do four paces in a small circle. They took us out in the sun once or twice per week for an hour or two. There were no rules [for going out]. It was always suddenly,” he said.
Prison food was “basic,” with small portions and lacking in proteins.
Holmann was suffering from health problems prior to his incarceration.
Whenever he was taken to the prison health clinic, he was photographed. Holmann is unclear why the authorities did this but suspects they wanted to monitor his health.
Analysts said the expulsion of the political prisoners was a political ploy after years of international pressure to free dissidents.
But commentators also said that Ortega’s decision to strip them of their nationality was designed to be a show of strength on the part of the Nicaraguan president.
Anna Ayuso, a Latin America analyst at the Barcelona Institute for International Studies, a think tank in Spain, said Ortega had to appear strong in front of his supporters.
“The prisoners were released after negotiations with the United States. But Ortega took away the [prisoners’] nationalities and called them traitors as a gesture of power in front of his people,” she told VOA.
Ayuso said other left-wing leaders in the region criticized Ortega for this decision.
'I feel Nicaraguan'
Holmann, who is now 56 years old, had been an executive at La Prensa for 10 years before he reached the role of CEO in 2021.
The newspaper covers political events, human rights issues and the fate of exiles. Most of the staff are living in Costa Rica and the U.S.
Like other released prisoners, all Holmann’s civil records have been erased by the Nicaraguan administration.
“It is as if I do not exist anymore. It is another attack on my human rights,” he said. “But you cannot do away with the person’s personality. In the Nicaraguan constitution it says that you cannot wipe out a person’s personal records or take away their nationality. I feel Nicaraguan, and they cannot take that away from me.”
Holmann said government persecution of the independent media is worsening.
“Since before , there were attacks on the free press, but after then, the free press has been persecuted," he said. "But we carry on working."
Holmann said he believes his country is sliding toward an abyss.
“I look at my country and there is a lot of fear," he said. "There are lots of people leaving for better opportunities in the United States.”
The Associated Press provided some information for this report.