Five days have passed since they were released, but they still can’t believe they’re out of jail. The idea of recovering their lives still feels “unreal” to them. Now they must resume their means of economic survival, their family relations and their ability to enjoy the peace of home. They’ve all spent a year unjustly imprisoned, accused of fabricated crimes they never committed.
Celia Cruz is a transgender woman from the island of Ometepe. She spoke with Confidencial of her release, reiterating that she still couldn’t believe it. She was freed on April 25, together with Enyel Lopez, Jean Carlos Mora, Yubrank Mora and Edwin Mora. They had all spent a year in prison, accused of obstructing official duties and kidnapping officer Noel Reyes for ransom.
Activist Celia Cruz was sentenced to 13 years and six months in prison. She asserts, however, that she never lost faith. She was sure she’d be released, since she “hadn’t committed any crime.”
On Sunday, April 25, the miracle Cruz had been expecting, finally arrived. Officials of the Jorge Navarro Penitentiary, better known as El Modelo, came to her cell around 8 am. They told her to gather her things and to follow them out of the cell block.
“I thought they were taking me to the 300 (maximum security unit), because that’s the only thing they ever prescribe. But they took me out of the cell block and headed towards the warden’s office. All I could only think was: ‘Dear Saintly God, I’m free!’”
Celia Cruz had been in prison from April 22, 2020, until that Sunday, April 25th. She was jailed after Ortega loyalists held a campaign on social media, demanding the activist be arrested. They identified her in videos, where she was lambasting police official Noel Reyes.
On April 19, 2020, Reyes fell off the police patrol truck he and other agents were on. They were engaged in an operation to repress a group of youth from the town of Esquipulas, on the island of Ometepe. The young people were commemorating the two-year anniversary of the 2018 April Rebellion. When Reyes fell, a group of residents from the community grabbed him and held him hostage.
Celia recalls that she was at her place of business a few miles away in Moyogalpa that day. She heard that some residents of Esquipulas had been arrested, and that the people were also holding a police official hostage.
“I went to Esquipulas and tried to get both parties to see reason. However, people then decided to take the police agent to a safe house. So, I went on home like always. I thought everything was normal, but nothing was, because my data was posted on social media. They said they [police] were looking for me, for having engaged in a criminal act. That’s what people affiliated with the government were saying,” she declared.
Psychological torture and cruel treatment
Celia was detained and jailed, along with other people from the island. She denounced the blows and mistreatment she received at the “Directorate of Judicial Assistance, better known as the El Chipote jail.
“They beat us when we arrived. We weren’t allowed to change our prison uniforms, and we had to bathe in pools of dirty water,” she stated.
Once they were transferred to the Penitentiary System, they were placed in cells for common criminals. They were subjected to “horrific” searches. If they didn’t agree to these, they were beaten and their hours of recreation and sunlight were reduced.
“In my case, the harassment was worse, because I’m transgender. They marked me for life. They forced us to strip, to do sit-ups. They hit us with their police clubs. They isolated us and kept us locked up. We were also mistreated verbally, accusing us of promoting a coup,” she denounced.
Celia has some 20 scars that run from the palm of her hand to her right forearm. These were self-inflicted wounds, her only form of protest within the Penitentiary, demanding her freedom.
Now that she’s been released, she hopes to “recover her life”. A year of her life was “illegally” ripped from her. However, she’ll have to accustom herself to the constant police siege. They pursue her every time she leaves her house. On the same day she was freed, the Moyogalpa [the island’s chief ferry port] police detained her for over twenty minutes. They warned her to “remember that I was freed by a pardon, on conditional release. I should remember that there’s no repetition. I should be very cautious about getting the masses worked up, or wanting to disturb the peace.”
The activist wanted all those persecuting her to know that the only crime she could be accused of is wanting “a different Nicaragua. One with liberty, equal rights and free expression.” Celia stressed that over 100 political prisoners still remain in the country’s jails. These prisoners continue awaiting their freedom. They’re demanding that the opposition “not negotiate with the authoritarian regime. They mustn’t agree to unconditional elections, and – please! – they must never forget the political prisoners. They mustn’t forget Nicaragua. They mustn’t forget democracy in order to line their pockets, as the current government has done.”
Enyel Lopez: “I was wounded and imprisoned for no reason”
The young farmer Enyel Lopez, 24, is part of the group of island residents who were wounded and jailed in April 2020. The youth wasn’t even protesting on that April 19th. Nonetheless, like his cousin, released political prisoner Yubrank Mora, he was wounded by police bullets.
Lopez was struck by gunshot while running to aid his cousin Yubrank Mora. Yubrank’s ankle had been hit by a bullet.
“I wasn’t protesting. My house is located a block from the square, where everything was going on. As I left home, I saw that they’d wounded my cousin. I ran to help him, to rescue him, but as I was running towards the group, I feel an impact. It was a bullet that fractured my femur,” he recalled.
The youth was taken to the hospital in Rivas, on the mainland, that night of April 19. However, in the wee hours of April 20, police agents came to inform him he was being “held for investigation”. Police were stationed there to guard him, and he was handcuffed to his bed.
Lopez spent nearly two months in the hospital. During all that time, he was never presented before a judge. After leaving the hospital, he spent seven days in the Rivas police station, then 15 days in the El Chipote jail. Only then was he taken before the court. At the hearing, he found out he was being accused of a host of crimes. Among them were kidnapping for ransom, aggravated robbery, obstruction of official duties and aggravated damage.
The young farmer was sentenced to six years and two months in prison for the crimes of obstruction of official duties and inflicting serious wounds. He declared that he “never accepted the charges”, because he had never committed any crime.
“They put me in jail because they didn’t know what to do with me after they’d wounded me for no reason,” he denounced.
Suffering through a year in jail was a “great injustice”. He was actually a victim of police aggression. The bullet he received has left him with problems in his left leg. He still can’t walk normally, and he loses his balance.
Lopez didn’t receive blows or mistreatment in prison. He believes he received deferential treatment because of his injury. He noted, though, that seeing him in prison was “tough” on his family. His mother was constantly ill from the heartache, and he barely saw her during the year he was in prison.
Enyel Lopez, like Celia Cruz, stated that the Penal System officials told them they were completely free, with no conditions.
“They didn’t explain anything about the regulations under which we were getting out. They didn’t tell me I had to go sign anything, they said nothing,” Enyel declared.
When he arrived back in Esquipulas, he participated in a Mass in the community’s church. There he received the solidarity of the community. They knew he had paid “unjustly”, with a year of his life.
“I always maintained that I wasn’t going to serve the years I was sentenced to, because I’d been unjustly imprisoned,” he reiterated.
As a released political prisoner, Lopez affirmed that his objective is to “have my leg recuperate, to get therapy and see what kind of work I can get to help my family out.”
“Freed in practice, but not by law”
Attorney Eber Acevedo from the Permanent Human Rights Commission explained the case of his defendants, Enyel Lopez and Celia Cruz. The Penitentiary System merely had them sign a letter, affirming they’d been given their freedom. They were then remanded to authorities from the Mayor’s offices of the two major towns on the island, Moyogalpa and Altagracia. The released prisoners weren’t given a copy of any documents that would let them know the legal terms of their release.
“They were warned not to get mixed up in anything, and then they were just let out. The officials offered no explanation, nor were we notified as their defense team. No legal reason was given for their release. They explained nothing,” the lawyer said.
Lopez’ case was being appealed in the Managua Tribunals, while Cruz’ case had been filed for review by Nicaragua’s Supreme Court.
Lawyer Yonarqui Martinez is the lawyer for the other three Ometepe ex-prisoners, all with the last name of Mora: Juan Carlos, Yubrank and Edwin. She also stated as their attorney that “there’s been no notification of the measures under which they were freed.” Because of this, she feels, it’s a release “in practice, but not under the law. Their files remain active in the judicial system.”