MEXICO CITY — Last week, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sent to the United States 222 political leaders, priests, students, activists and other dissidents whose release has long been demanded by the international community.

Shortly thereafter, the Ortega government voted to strip the former prisoners of their Nicaraguan citizenship. Analysts, legal experts and human rights groups are calling it a political ploy, but also a violation of international law that they say is unprecedented, at least in the Western Hemisphere, in terms of scale and impact.

A look at what has happened:

Why did Nicaragua kick out the dissidents?

The expulsion comes amid a broader push by the Ortega government to crush political dissent dating back to 2018 anti-government street protests that were met with a violent response from Nicaraguan security forces.

Ortega has called his imprisoned opponents “traitors” and maintains that they were behind the protests, which he says were a foreign-funded plot to overthrow him. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled government repression.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega speaks during a message broadcast on radio and television on February 9, 2023 in Managua.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega speaks during a message broadcast on radio and television February 9 in Managua. Canal 6 Nicaragua via AFP – Getty Images

The imprisonment of government opponents has become a sticking point internationally, particularly with the administration of US President Joe Biden, which has used their detention to justify sanctions on the Central American nation.

The prisoners’ release was, in part, a tactic to «minimize the public costs of their repression,» particularly in the eyes of the international community, said Ivan Briscoe of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit research group focused on resolve conflicts around the world.

“He would prefer to go back to a stable, low-level authoritarian government where there is not, perhaps none of the most visible forms of abuse, but continuous political control,” Briscoe said.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington on Monday that the release of the prisoners was seen as «a constructive step» and is something that Biden officials have said would open a door to a dialogue between the two countries.

But the fact that Ortega’s congress simultaneously voted to strip expelled prisoners of citizenship draws criticism.

“This was by no means a panacea for the many concerns we have with the Nicaraguan regime, including the repression and oppression it continues to bring to bear on its own people,” Price said.

While the Nicaraguan Congress has yet to hold a second vote to approve the constitutional change to formally strip those expelled of their nationality, it passed unanimously in the initial vote. Ortega’s firm hold on power leaves any other outcome highly unlikely.

“I think the message is very clear: in my land there will be no opposition,” Briscoe said.

Image: Juan Sebastian Chamorro
Nicaraguan Juan Sebastián Chamorro, right, is greeted by Nahiroby Olivas after arriving from Nicaragua at Washington Dulles International Airport on February 9. Jose Luis Magana / AP

Why do experts say it violates international law?

Peter J. Spiro, a professor of international law at Temple University, and others say that taking away citizenship in this context violates a treaty adopted in 1961 by countries in the United Nations, including Nicaragua, which establishes clear rules aimed at preventing statelessness.

The treaty states that governments may not «deprive any person or group of persons of their nationality for racial, ethnic, religious or political reasons.»

Spiro noted that there are some circumstances in which governments can cancel citizenship, such as canceling the nationality of someone who acquires citizenship in another country when the first nation prohibits dual citizenship. But, he said, it is not allowed to destroy the citizenry when it is used as a political weapon.

“This is banishment, and banishment is antithetical to modern conceptions of human rights,” he said.

Spain has offered their citizenship to the 222 exiles, while the US granted the Nicaraguans a two-year temporary protection.

But many of the former prisoners in the United States are left in a state of mental and legal flux, said Jennie Lincoln, an academic in contact with many of the exiles.

“Psychologically they are stateless,” Lincoln said. “They are in shock, going from a day in prison to hours later on a plane to the United States. Imagine the psychological impact of that, and then being stripped of your citizenship.»

How common is citizenship revocation?

Ortega’s move is unprecedented in the Western Hemisphere, both in size and scope, according to analysts and legal experts.

Previous cases of states in the region moving to dispossess the citizenry of political actors have always been limited in scale.

In Chile in the 1970s, the Pinochet dictatorship stripped Orlando Letelier of his citizenship, who lived in exile where he led opposition to political repression in the South American nation.

Spiro, from Temple University, said that Ortega’s action bears some resemblance to what has been done in Bahrain, in the Middle East.

Over the years, the Bahrain government has stripped hundreds of political and human rights activists, journalists and religious scholars of their nationalities, leaving them stateless. In 2018, a court stripped 115 people of their citizenship in a mass trial on terrorism charges, according to Human Rights Watch.

“But Ortega’s movement is more visible,” Spiro said.

What about the prisoners who did not go to the US?

Experts are especially concerned about Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, a vocal critic of Ortega who refused to board the plane for the US with the other prisoners.

He told those close to him that if he got on the plane, it would be like admitting to a crime he never committed.

Shortly thereafter, Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years in prison—notorious for its poor conditions—and stripped of his citizenship within Nicaragua, something harshly condemned by State Department officials.

It left him in a more extreme legal limbo than his peers in the US.

So far, no one has been able to contact Álvarez, or confirm for themselves where he is or if he is safe, said a person close to Álvarez, who asked not to be cited for fear of retaliation.

«From a legal standpoint, his future looks completely bleak and he knows it,» the man said.