(Reuters) - Nicaraguan police have detained at least five opposition leaders, including a presidential hopeful, deepening a sweeping crackdown of political and business figures opposed to President Daniel Ortega ahead of November elections.
Scores of prominent Nicaraguans, including six who planned to challenge Ortega's bid for a fourth consecutive term in office, have been arrested in recent weeks. Many have fled abroad.
On Monday, police detained farmworker leaders Medardo Mairena, who planned a presidential bid, Pedro Mena, and Freddy Navas, accusing them of murdering and kidnapping police officers and civilians, armed robbery, and extortion, among other crimes, the police said in a statement on Tuesday.
Police also arrested student leaders Lesther Aleman and Max Jerez over accusations of armed robbery, kidnapping, rape and other crimes.
The police said all the crimes were committed during a wave of anti-government protests in 2018. The protests faced harsh reprisals from Nicaraguan security officials and some 320 people died in the violence, according to rights groups.
Mairena was previously sentenced for his participation in the 2018 protests to 216 years in prison, charged with terrorism, murder and organized crime. Then, under an amnesty law, he was released in mid-2019 after nearly a year in detention and had the charges dropped.
"Ortega's goal is not only to eliminate electoral competition by capturing the sixth presidential candidate, but also to head off civic resistance. He has arrested more than 20 political, civic, self-convened, student and peasant leaders," Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Chamorro said on Twitter.
Chamorro, who fled to neighboring Costa Rica in mid-June, is the brother of detained opposition leader Cristiana Chamorro.
Ortega, a former leftist revolutionary who has ruled Nicaragua since returning to power in 2007, has justified his crackdown on opponents by saying https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/nicaraguas-ortega-shrugs-off-global-pressure-rare-speech-2021-06-24/?taid=60d4185facce2b000128fdca&utm_campaign=trueAnthem:+Trending+Content&utm_medium=trueAnthem&utm_source=twitter his administration was prosecuting criminals who were plotting a coup against him.
The arrests have sparked international outrage. The U.S. State Department has called the detentions an "ongoing campaign of terror" and said the United States would use all diplomatic and economic tools at its disposal to promote fair elections.
(Reporting by Diego Ore and Anthony Esposito, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)