MEXICO CITY (AP) — The wife of Nicaraguan political activist Felix Maradiaga told reporters her husband had lost more than 65 pounds during his year in prison and she feared for his health.

A day later, President Daniel Ortega’s government dragged the potential former presidential challenger before the cameras for a previously unscheduled and unusual hearing to ratify the 13-year prison sentence he had already received earlier this year.

The fact that a pro-government media was invited, but not Maradiaga’s family – or his lawyers – showed that the Sandista-led government is determined to challenge international condemnation of its sweeping crackdown on dissidents. Footage from the weekend appearance showed Maradiaga was thin but seemed to walk and talk without difficulty.

Maradiaga had not been seen publicly since his arrest in June 2021 – one of nearly 190 people considered political prisoners by human rights groups and the US State Department, including six others who could have challenged Ortega for the presidency in last November’s election. None of them had been seen in pictures or video since their arrest until the brief appearance in court in Maradiaga on Saturday.

“The government has put on a show, a scene of public torture broadcast live to the people” in an effort to instill more fear, said Vilma Nuñez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. She herself is a former political prisoner under the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, whom Ortega helped oust from power in 1979.

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The United States and the European Union have called for the release of the prisoners and denounced Ortega’s election victory in November as a farce. They imposed sanctions on members of his family and entourage, but his government continued to make arrests while driving the independent press and non-governmental groups out of the country, most recently last week the nuns of the association charity created by Mother Teresa.

Jared Genser, a U.S.-based law professor and prominent human rights lawyer who represents Maradiaga and Juan Sebastián Chamorro, said during an online press conference Thursday with Maradiaga’s wife and relatives. other prisoners that the situation of political prisoners in Nicaragua is among the worst he has seen in his career.

Maradiaga’s wife, Berta Valle, told the conference that her husband and others are being held in unsanitary cells, malnourished and denied medical treatment for chronic illnesses. They do not receive reading materials or visits with their children, she said.

“Our loved ones feel they are causing damage to his health that may be irreversible,” Valle said. She herself fled to the United States and was informed of her condition by two siblings who were occasionally able to visit her.

Núñez said one of the most troubling aspects for the family is the lack of communication. She said the “information limbo” creates “desperation and angst”.

Valle said she was unaware of Saturday’s court hearing for her husband until she saw a video of it. And she said last week she didn’t even know her husband had gone on a hunger strike a week earlier to protest the conditions of his imprisonment.

Maradiaga was convicted of undermining national integrity, a charge also applied to many other dissidents. He denies the allegation.

After Saturday’s court appearance, a reporter from a government-allied outlet put a microphone on Maradiaga and asked him why he was “lying” about his health. Maradiaga appeared confused by the question and unaware that outside of prison there was public debate about his welfare.

He replied that he was being held in total isolation and that he had been the subject of a political trial.

Renata Holmann, daughter of Juan Lorenzo Holmann, the imprisoned editor of La Prensa newspaper, said on Thursday he suffered from chronic illnesses and additional health problems acquired in prison since his arrest last August.

“They are killing them bit by bit, day by day,” she said of the imprisoned dissidents.

In May 2019, opposition member Eddy Montes was shot dead by a prison guard in what the government said was a riot. In February, Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader turned Ortega critic, died in a Managua hospital while incarcerated.

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