By Melissa Mahtani, CNN
(CNN) — It’s been just over 100 days since Nicaraguan opposition leader Felix Maradiaga was released from prison, along with at least 221 other political prisoners, and flown to the United States. His sudden release after 611 days of detention – many of them in solitary confinement, he says – came as a surprise both for Maradiaga and his wife Berta Valle.
Valle, who had no direct contact with her husband while he was in prison, told CNN there had been talk of something happening in Nicaragua in a family group chat the night before the flood of political prisoners was released. Jaded from prior disappointments, she had dismissed it as gossip.
“Around midnight, I just decided to go to bed and I said, ‘Well Lord, I give you my husband, take care of him. I’m so tired, I have to go to bed.’ Then in the morning, I woke up very early, and I received a phone call from someone from the State Department who said – ‘Look Berta, I’m calling you to tell you that your husband is flying right now in an airplane together with 221 political prisoners, and they’re going to Washington’,” she said.
“And I just started screaming! Imagine at six in the morning, I was just waking up everyone in the house.”
When Valle, a former journalist, could finally breathe normally, she asked the State Department if she should also make her way to Washington from Miami, where she is now based.
They said yes and she did. The rest of that day is a blur, she says.
“I just remember how incredibly relieved I was and how grateful. For me it was a miracle. I was expecting Félix to get out in maybe three, four years. And it had happened.”
Maradiaga’s release came after years of escalating repression by Nicaragua’s five-term President Daniel Ortega – who also stripped the former prisoners of their Nicaraguan nationality while they were in the air, en route to the US.
The authoritarian leader has imprisoned dozens of opposition figures and activists, particularly in the lead up to the last elections in November 2021. Many were accused of treason or involvement in “illicit activities” for having contact with foreign journalists or human rights’ organizations that the Ortega regime views as a threat.
“All the presidential candidates, plus the high ranking politicians arrested with me, were charged with the same accusation, ‘undermining national sovereignty, and conspiracy against national security,’” Maradiaga said. “The journalist and civil society leaders were charged with money laundering or producing fake news on cybercrimes and the less visible prisoners, like grassroots leaders were charged with a very diverse set of felonies.”
Prisoners were kept in what Maradiaga’s lawyer described as “horrific” conditions, with little food of poor quality, no reading materials – not even a bible – and many without drinking water available in their cells. Maradiaga told CNN that he lost 60 pounds in the first few months in prison, was kept in total darkness, and was not allowed to make a single phone call.
Valle and Maradiaga spoke to CNN earlier this month at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy about how they prepared for imprisonment, adjusting to their unexpected reunion, and balancing the good fight with family life.
‘A unilateral decision’
Maradiaga had long been a thorn in the side of President Daniel Ortega for speaking out against the regime. As an opposition activist and civil society leader, he spoke out relentlessly against the regime’s crackdown on dissent.
Maradiaga told CNN that he had clues in the lead up to his release that something was happening – he just didn’t know what.
“The conditions in the prison were terrible the first year and then towards the end of 2022, the other prisoners and myself started to have certain small prison conditions changed. For example, finally, after almost two years, I got – for the first time – on a phone call with my daughter, whom I had not seen for three years. We were also given food and encouraged to eat like they [the prison guards] wanted us to put on weight.”
“Then, on February 8, a guard came to our cell and said, ‘Dress!’ He gave me some clothing and then we boarded a bus, handcuffed, with no information. And then I arrived at the airport with the other prisoners from 11 different detention centers,” he recounted.
Maradiaga spotted an American diplomat at the airport who he had worked with before and that was when he realized he and the other prisoners were being flown to the United States.
“I got on my knees. I kissed the floor because I knew it was going to be a long time until my next return to Nicaragua, which will happen – I give you my word it will happen – and I boarded the plane,” he says defiantly.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at the time that the decision to release the individuals, some of whom had spent years in prison, was “a unilateral decision that the Nicaraguan government took.”
The prisoners were made to sign a document acknowledging their willingness to fly to the United States and boarded a flight to Dulles International Airport in the early hours of February 9.
“It was the Nicaraguan government that decided to offer the opportunity to these individuals to travel to the United States,” Price said. “We agreed that we would of course receive them.”
Preparing for the worst
Maradiaga expected to be imprisoned – or worse – when he returned to Nicaragua in 2019, after a year in exile in the US.
As he saw other voices of dissent being arrested and thrown in prison, he set out to prepare his family for what could happen by recording a series of videos and instructions to sustain his wife and daughter if he were to suddenly disappear.
“When I received the notice of the attorney’s office that I needed to show myself, I had a call with Berta that we both recall perfectly. I told her that I was going to be arrested, but there was a big chance that I was going to be disappeared,” he said.
“So, I had to film a video – probably the hardest thing I’ve done – to try to explain to my six-year-old daughter, that if I got killed, that it was because of my principles and ask her to forgive me for that decision. But that it was the right thing to do.”
Maradiaga was ultimately arrested on June 8, 2021, having announced his intention to run for president four months earlier. He was investigated for various crimes and eventually sentenced to 13 years in prison for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity,” according to his lawyer.
In those first few months, Valle was angry.
She said that she felt like her husband had abandoned her and their daughter, especially as she had to deal with her daughter asking for him every night. But over time, and through speaking to victims of the Ortega regime whom her husband had helped, her anger and disappointment were replaced by admiration, she says.
The videos Maradiaga had left for her ended up being a lifeline, she also said.
“He gave me all these instructions. He gave me, for example, the name of our international human rights lawyer, Jared Genser, who became my angel through all of this. He gave me the contacts of the Geneva Summit and other organizations, that he said I should contact to advocate for his release.”
Maradiaga credits his wife’s advocacy alongside the work of these international human rights organizations as being instrumental to his release. He explains how the international outcry these organizations cause often makes the prisoner too much of a problem for the dictatorship and that can lead to a release of some sort.
“It’s not a magic bullet, but I saw from every single interrogation, every single interview was about the names of organizations. They were so concerned about the meetings of the UN, meetings of the Geneva Summit, the Oslo Freedom Forum, they had huge reports of all the traveling or the advocacy that Berta was doing.”
Although Maradiaga says he’s not yet ready to talk about the “dark” conditions he faced while in prison, he credits his Catholic faith and deep sense of purpose as the factors that kept him going while he was detained.
“When you give suffering a purpose and meaning, suffering is not necessarily something that is less bearable, but at least has a meaning. Deep in my heart I always knew that it was a matter of time. I told myself, Mr. Ortega is close to his 80s, I have much more time than he does, but also more faith. And that’s the important part.”
‘An audit of the heart.’
While both Maradiaga and his wife are elated to be reunited, they admit that it hasn’t been easy – and that there is a lot of work for them to do, both individually and as a family.
“It’s been really interesting the last three months to have back Félix at home, especially because we were living for three years together with my mother-in-law and [daughter] Alejandra. We have our own dynamic in the house, and then Félix comes and the dynamics change,” Valle says.
She explains that she had been hoping that they would be able to pause and spend time together as a family once he was released but that the reality has been very different.
Maradiaga has had requests for hundreds of interviews and speaking engagements since the moment he landed in the US. Both feel pressure to seize the moment to draw attention to the fight for freedom in Nicaragua – and trying to heal themselves and their family at the same time is a tough road to navigate, they say.
“Every single day in freedom for me is a joy,” Maradiaga says. “To see my daughter, her smile, every morning is a miracle. When I see Berta, food – I’ve gained 30 pounds since November last year – the smells, the air, sometimes we take it for granted. But there are people around the world, they just see a ray of light, sunshine, as a gift.”
“On the other hand, every single day that I’m free, someone else is in prison. Every single day that I’m free, my country is suffering repression. So that’s why I have a sense of urgency. So that’s what’s next, to free Nicaragua,” he says.
On Saturday, Nicaraguan police said they were investigating several dioceses of the Catholic Church for allegations of money laundering, a day after local media reported that the bank accounts of parishes in the Central American country had been frozen. This comes just weeks after the National Assembly of Nicaragua voted to dissolve the local branch of the Red Cross, as part of an ongoing clampdown on groups seen as hostile to the Ortega government.
The regime also suspended ties with the Vatican in March, shortly after Pope Francis compared his administration to the Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler.
While he hasn’t yet had time to fully process his ordeal, Maradiaga is also aware of the need to juggle his commitment to fighting for freedom in Nicaragua with his personal healing.
“I think that dictators know that when they put people in prison, the human reaction is to come out with anger and bitterness,” he says.
“So in my case, I’ve been working very hard to do an audit of the heart, to try, so that my commitment to non-violence, my compassion, my commitment to civic resistance, remain untouched. It’s very important not to hate because if you want to build democracy and freedom out of hate, you will just replicate the same cycle.”
“Compassion doesn’t mean that we will not persecute crimes against humanity. But through the law, through the international system – not revenge – justice,” Maradiaga adds.
A symbol of hope
Maradiaga and Valle’s reunification has become a symbol of hope for many, and they also feel a responsibility to encourage that hope.
In his speech, Maradiaga vowed to use his platform to not only fight for a free and democratic Nicaragua, but to campaign for the freedom of political prisoners around the world.
“This is an award that belongs to those Nicaraguans who live in a huge prison. Those Nicaraguans without a voice. Those Nicaraguans who only are asking for the protection of basic human rights and human dignity. So this award not only recognizes the struggle for freedom in my own nation, but amplifies the voices of the silenced,” he told the summit.
“Do not let anyone tell you that it is not possible to free Vladimir Kara-Murza. Do not let anyone know that it’s not possible to release our dear barefoot lawyer from China. Do not let anyone tell you that it’s not possible to walk in full freedom in Hong Kong and Venezuela, in Cuba, in Afghanistan,” he continued. Kara-Murza, a Russian rights advocate, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after criticizing the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
Valle, who spoke alongside her husband at the summit, used the opportunity to urge other families of political prisoners to seek out help, and stressing the importance of taking time to rest.
“I like this phrase that says that I’m here because I stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s very important to look for help, look for organizations, people that have had some experience in the situation that everyone is facing – that helped me a lot. And also faith,” says Valle, a devout born-again Christian.
“After all this work that we do as human rights defenders, there’s a private life that also has to be taken care of. We have to take moments to rest, to think, to pray if you are religious, because it’s important to protect ourselves first and then try to do things for others,” Valle added.
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