(NEW YORK) – Following news reports last week that 222 political prisoners from Nicaragua were released and transported to the United States, PEN America has obtained disturbing new details regarding their forcible expulsion from the country, based on conversations with three individuals with knowledge of the situation, including a Nicaraguan human rights defender, a deported political prisoner, and a family member of a deported political prisoner. In a statement today, PEN America denounced the Nicaraguan authorities for apparently forcing these political prisoners – including multiple artists, writers, and journalists – to renounce their citizenship under duress and deporting them without their consent, and for subsequently stripping citizenship from an additional 94 Nicaraguan dissidents in exile, including poet and former president of PEN Nicaragua Gioconda Belli.

According to Alexa Zamora, a Nicaraguan human rights defender based in Washington DC, the Nicaraguan authorities “abruptly took prisoners from their cells, forced them to sign documents declaring their decision to voluntarily leave the country, and stripped them of their nationality before deporting them to the United States,” on February 9, in response to a judicial resolution. Zamora has been in close contact with over 100 Nicaraguan deportees in the days following their arrival in the United States, who have shared traumatic accounts of their deportation experience. ARC confirmed Zamora’s account with a deported political prisoner and the family member of another deported political prisoner, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety. They explained that deportees were forced to sign a declaration renouncing their citizenship, and were forced to choose between staying in jail or being deported. Upon arriving in the United States, they did not know where they had been deported to. They report that their families remain in danger in Nicaragua and the authorities are confiscating their property.

Among the 222 forcibly deported prisoners are reportedly writer Oscar René Vargas Escobar and journalists Miguel Mora, Miguel Mendoza Urbina, Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro, Cristiana Chamorro, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, and political commentator Jaime Arellano. Additionally, on February 15, another 94 Nicaraguans, most of them have been deported and in exile since 2018, were stripped of their nationality, including the writer and Miguel de Cervantes Prize winner Sergio Ramírez and the renowned poet and former president of PEN Nicaragua Gioconda Belli.

ARC Director Julie Trébault said: “We are relieved that these individuals are no longer behind bars after being unjustly detained by the Ortega government. However, we are deeply concerned that they were deported against their will and have been effectively rendered stateless. They are now living in the United States with no chance to return to their country and no guarantee that they will receive asylum in the United States. The process in which this deportation was carried out was, by all appearances, highly traumatic and inhumane — and in violation of the human rights of these individuals. The space for freedom of expression in Nicaragua has continued to shrink disturbingly in recent years, and the country has now lost 222 of its writers, poets, journalists, activists, and other critical voices.

Trébault stated: “We call on the Nicaraguan authorities to ensure the safety of deportees’ families within the country, return their right to full citizenship, and release all political prisoners who remain in arbitrary detention. Additionally, while we commend the United States government for their efforts to safely welcome these deportees, we urge them to ensure that they are now able to receive asylum.”

According to Zamora, the U.S. government has granted humanitarian parole to the deported Nicaraguans, who are now living in foster homes organized by members of the Nicaraguan diaspora. “There is a lot of uncertainty among the deportees,” she said. “Many of them do not fully understand the legal process, which is quite complex at this stage… On top of that, consider the trauma of having left a prison to be deported to another country.”

PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Center Director Liesl Gerntholtz said: “The stripping of citizenship from dissidents represents another alarming escalation and a severe human rights violation and we call on the government to immediately restore their citizenship and to cease the harassment of and abuses against human rights defenders, artists and all those who stand up for their rights. We remain deeply concerned by the ongoing efforts to stifle free expression and human rights in Nicaragua. Tactics including detaining and prosecuting critics and protesters and targeting human rights defenders and others through death threats, assaults and forms of intimidation are part of the brutal and longstanding effort by the Ortega government to maintain its hold on power.”

Dozens of other Nicaraguan dissidents, writers, and artists remain currently in jail, detained under similar charges, or are operating in fear of their imminent exile. In PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index—an annual count of imprisoned writers worldwide—Nicaragua ranked second worst in Latin America.


 About the Artists at Risk Connection

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. ARC  published A Safety Guide For Artists, a resource that offers practical strategies to help artists understand, navigate, and overcome risk, and oversees the PAR – América Latina y el Caribe network, which provides support for persecuted artists in Latin America and the Caribbean. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.