MANAGUA, NICARAGUA - Nicaragua’s government released 636 prisoners Tuesday as embattled President Daniel Ortega seeks to consolidate his hold on power nearly one year since the beginning of the biggest protests to shake his government.
The protests erupted last April when Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla, tried to cut welfare benefits. The protests soon spiraled into a broader resistance movement and became the sharpest test of his authority since he took office in 2007.
The freed prisoners will finish their sentences under home arrest and be prohibited from attending protests or other public gatherings, the Nicaraguan government said.
According to the government, the group does not include political prisoners. The Civic Alliance, an opposition group, said in a statement, however, that 18 such detainees were released.
The opposition wants the government to honor a pledge to release hundreds of prisoners still in custody who were arrested during the protests of the past year.
At least 324 people have been killed in the disturbances, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous arm of the Organization of American States.
Ortega has called the protests an illicit plot by his adversaries to oust him.
The government has prohibited an opposition march planned for Wednesday on the grounds that those behind it were involved in “grave disturbances to public order” in past protests.
That march, as well as other opposition events scheduled for Thursday and Friday, could reignite civil unrest. Thursday will mark a year since the start of the protests.
The anniversary coincides with Christian feast days marking Holy Week, and the gatherings associated with them have often provided venues for public demonstrations.
United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, has warned that the marches this week could turn violent. In a statement on Tuesday, her office noted that some 62,000 Nicaraguans had been displaced over the past year and that hundreds more had been arrested.
A Cold War adversary of the United States, the 73-year-old Ortega also served a single term as president in the 1980s.