Nicaragua’s government said Monday it will implement a program to guarantee the safe return of exiles, a proposal the opposition dismissed as “absurd.”

Anyone who fled in the past year and does not have an open court case or formal accusation against them will be eligible to return, the foreign affairs ministry said in a statement. It said the International Organization for Migration will provide technical support.

The government made the proposal to the opposition Civic Alliance on April 10, but said it didn’t reach a consensus.

Alliance director Azahálea Solís said the group rejected the proposal as “absurd.”

“It’s ridiculous to act like the exiles would believe the same government that threatened them, persecuted them, killed their relatives and occupied their houses is now going to safeguard their lives and safety,” Solís said. She said the proposal did not include any real mechanism for protecting those who return.

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 325 people have been killed during the past year of unrest. The commission estimates there are more than 52,000 people who have fled the country, mostly to Costa Rica.

The Civic Alliance believes there are at least 160 people who fled the country while facing an arrest order.

Solís said the alliance had countered the government’s idea with a plan for returns to be supervised by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, but said the government rejected that idea. The government has opposed the commission as a guarantor of the negotiations.

She also criticized the government for not completing the release of political prisoners that authorities had promised.

Jairo Bonilla, a student protest leader who went to Costa Rica last year, said he still receives daily threats from government supporters.

“For us as exiles there is no guarantee that we could return and nothing would happen to us,” said Bonilla, who maintained that he is accused falsely of violent acts during the protests.

Bonilla also said President Daniel Ortega is trying to relieve international pressure on his government.

“He wants to make it seem like everything is normal in Nicaragua, that Nicaragua is negotiating, when every day they are killing more people, they are arresting more people without the world realizing it,” Bonilla said.

Human rights activist Sara Henríquez, exiled in Italy, called the proposal a “tremendous joke.”

“We don’t have any assurance that they aren’t going to kill us,” she said. “All of us who left for exile, it was because we were threatened with death or we have cases with the police.”


Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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Pope Francis has asked one of Nicaragua’s most outspoken bishops to come to Rome for an undetermined period of time, church officials said Wednesday.

Silvio Báez, Managua’s auxiliary bishop, has been a vocal critic of President Daniel Ortega and his government’s crackdown on protesters over the past year. He said having to leave Nicaragua fills him with “sadness and pain.”

Pope Francis recently told the 60-year-old Báez that he is needed in Rome. He didn’t say if the decision was related to an alleged assassination plan revealed by former U.S. Ambassador Laura Dogu.

“He told me, ‘I’m interested in having you with me here. I need you right now,’ and I accepted with loving obedience,” Báez said.

Báez said the U.S. government warned him of the plot several months ago. He told the pope that he had received a number of death threats during the past year, but it hadn’t kept him from his work.

Drones constantly hover over his home. Men on motorcycles have entered the parking area. And he has had to change his phone number four times because of the threats.

Báez participated as a mediator in the short-lived first round of dialogue between the government and opposition last year. Ortega, who had invited the church to mediate, later blasted the bishops, accusing them of being coup-plotters.

When another round of talks was attempted this year, Báez was not invited to participate. The church withdrew from the talks April 3.

The Nicaraguan government did not immediately comment on Báez.

Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize, characterized the move as “a forced exile” via Twitter and called it “a hard hit to the fight for democracy in Nicaragua.”

Last year, Báez and other church officials were attacked by a pro-government mob in the town of Diriamba. Báez escaped with a cut on his arm.

In October, a previously unknown Roman Catholic group in Nicaragua that local press tied to the government sent a letter to Pope Francis with 284,000 signatures asking that Báez be transferred. They accused him of promoting violence.

Báez said Wednesday “that was all a lie.”

Nearly a year has passed since a move by Ortega’s administration to cut social security benefits spurred large public protests that were met with violence by government forces and their supporters. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 325 people died in the unrest, 2,000 were wounded and at least 52,000 fled the country for exile.

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Nicaragua’s opposition is hoping for approval Friday of a schedule for freeing 640 people considered political prisoners, a leader of the opposition group Civic Alliance told The Associated Press.

Azahalea Solis, one of the main leaders of the Alliance and a negotiator in talks with the government aimed at resolving a political standoff, also said in an interview that 162 others released from prison and placed under house arrest since February would be granted more definitive freedom under a proposed deal.

"We hope to have ready today, Friday, the agreement for the liberation of the political prisoners, including the exit schedule for every one of them without exception," Solis said.

She added that efforts are being made for the latest releases to begin this weekend or Monday, and confirmed that all 802 people detained since protests erupted last April would have unrestricted freedom and see their charges and trials annulled.

Security forces and armed, pro-government civilian groups killed hundreds in their crack down on demonstrators who sought President Daniel Ortega’s exit from office last year, according to independent monitors.

This week, as negotiations that began Feb. 27 were on hold over the issue of jailed government opponents, Ortega’s government agreed to release them all within 90 days, prompting opposition negotiators to return to the table. In the past, authorities have repeatedly characterized anti-government demonstrators as "terrorists" and "coup-plotters."

Speaking Thursday night at a political event, the president told supporters in an apparent allusion to the negotiations that "we do not all think alike, but despite our ideological and differences, we must unite around a sacred goal, which is peace."

Solis told the AP that the 90-day window for releases is a maximum and could end up being shorter.

Still, she cautioned that it will be "a slow and complex" process because it entails documenting a long list of individual cases, including prisoners who have not been prosecuted, others facing trial and some who have already been convicted.

Solis said the Civic Alliance has demanded that police stop detaining government opponents, because otherwise "the list of prisoners will keep growing."

"May all of them go free and clean, without a criminal record, because all the arrests were illegal and due process was violated," Solis said.

The opposition is also seeking guarantees for the safe return of some 52,000 people who have fled the country, and asking that government opponents be able to secure jobs, return to university and get medical care.

Solis said the Alliance will also demand discussion of disarming the pro-government paramilitary groups that attacked protesters, often visibly in coordination with security forces.

The opposition is continuing to seek an early date for elections currently scheduled for 2021.

"Our demand remains the same," Solis said, "free, early and monitored elections."

At least 325 people were killed in last year’s violence, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The government puts the figure at 198, and other human rights groups say it tops 500.

The Organization of American States and the Roman Catholic Church are observing the negotiations.

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Nicaragua’s government and opposition began negotiating Thursday how to carry out the release of hundreds of political prisoners arrested in the past year of unrest.

President Daniel Ortega’s government announced Wednesday it would free the prisoners within 90 days in exchange for the lifting of external sanctions.

The prisoner release is the first of five agenda items negotiators plan to tackle after several fitful weeks of meetings to establish ground rules for talks on resolving Nicaragua’s political divisions.

The Committee for the Liberation of Political Prisoners, which counts about 640 such prisoners, said in a statement Thursday that the prisoners should be freed within 15 days and that the negotiations should not begin until all are released.

Both sides have agreed to ask the International Red Cross to monitor the prisoner release, but neither the government nor the opposition Civic Alliance have put a number on how many prisoners would be released.

The Organization of American States representative Luis Rosadilla and the Vatican’s ambassador to Nicaragua Waldemar Sommertag have been observing the talks.

U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Kevin Sullivan via Twitter applauded the agreement to release the prisoners as a "positive step." He said the agenda for the talks presented a path back to democracy for the country.

Negotiators also planned to discuss electoral reforms, strengthening citizens’ rights and the safe return of more than 52,000 people who have left the country since last April, according to opposition politician Jose Pallais.

Once there is agreement on all points, the Civic Alliance would call on the international community to suspend sanctions against the government.

Also Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution pushed by Argentina condemning human rights abuses in Nicaragua and calling for monitoring by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also included Nicaragua for the first time in a quarter century among the countries that require special monitoring because of the deterioration of the human rights situation. It has counted at least 325 killed and 2,000 wounded.

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Grasping the iron bars at his home, Alex Vanegas is taken back to the dark prison cells where he spent the previous four months talking to fellow inmates through holes in the walls that also let in rats, scorpions and cockroaches.

During the unrest that rocked Nicaragua last year, Vanegas became a prominent symbol of opposition to President Daniel Ortega, instantly recognizable for his salt-and-pepper beard and shirts emblazoned with anti-government slogans as he jogged through the streets of Managua in the blue and white of his country’s flag.

Arrested again and again, he was conditionally released in late February after four months in jail but is now barred from leaving his house.

Being cooped up hasn’t cooled Vanegas’ defiant belief that Ortega must leave office, even if for now he has to eschew public protest.

"All Nicaragua is a prison," the diminutive 62-year-old told The Associated Press in an interview.

A longtime athlete, Vanegas competed in track tournaments until he was 46, when he retired due to various maladies. He worked as a business administrator and in sales, and he also managed a roving DJ business.

Vanegas was moved to run again when student-led demonstrators took to the streets nearly a year ago to demand that Ortega leave office and allow early elections — only for hundreds to die in a crackdown by security forces and armed civilian militias backing the president.

"On April 20 I was watching television and I saw Alvarito Conrado die," Vanegas said, referring to a 15-year-old shot in the neck as he carried water to university students hunkered down at a barricade. "I was filled with anger, and I decided to run as a way of releasing that rage and that sorrow."

He began by running around traffic circles in the capital, many of which are adorned by huge, colorful "trees of life" metal sculptures that were sponsored by and have become synonymous with Ortega’s powerful first lady and vice president, Rosario Murillo.

"At first I would do a lap for every young person killed. … Then it was 10, 20, 30," Vanegas said. "And as every day there were more and more dead, I ran more and more laps."

Nicaraguans took notice. Many took to calling Vanegas "el maratonista" — roughly "marathon man." Others mused he was Nicaragua’s version of Forrest Gump, the title character in the 1994 Oscar-winning film starring Tom Hanks.

He started receiving unsolicited gifts: hats, flags, bottles of water, a pair of shoes. Independent media outlets portrayed him as a symbol of a spreading rebellion.

"I run to force Ortega out," read the message on one of his T-shirts that, along with his cellphones, were confiscated by police each time he was arrested. They also took from him dozens of Nicaraguan flags, a symbol favored by the opposition against the red-and-black flags of Ortega’s Sandinista movement.

Vanegas didn’t always feel that way. As a young man, he said, he supported Ortega’s struggle that ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza and was jailed for four months as an urban guerrilla fighting for the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

He celebrated the triumph of the Sandinista revolution in 1979, but soon soured on what he saw as its authoritarian politics.

"Alex has become a symbol due to his bravery and his rebellion. Thousands of people love him because he represents everything that the people would like to do but can’t," said activist Carla Sequeira of the non-governmental group Permanent Commission on Human Rights.

The government, not surprisingly, takes a different view.

Ortega and his allies have characterized protesters as "coup plotters" and "terrorists," and that has included Vanegas.

On Aug. 13, when Vanegas promoted a run under the slogan "Nicaragua wants justice," Murillo alluded to him by saying he was "making a fool of himself" running around in shorts. "The same ones as always — those who sell out their nation, the traitors," she added.

"I think he felt motivated by those (opposition) mobilizations and discovered that the way to show his political feeling and his solidarity was to have that permanent marathon," said Cairo Amador, a member of a truth commission created by Nicaragua’s Sandinista-controlled legislature at the direction of Ortega.

Asked about Vanegas’ popularity, Amador said, ironically, "It’s because we don’t have any other marathon runner in Nicaragua, at least not one with his constancy and perseverance."

Vanegas was arrested five times and released. Then, on Nov. 2, he was taken into custody at a Managua cemetery while accompanying victims’ relatives on Day of the Dead. He spent four months behind bars.

The first 60 days were at El Chipote prison. Vanegas said he was poorly fed and had no access to sunlight, and it partially harmed his vision. The next two months were at Modelo prison, where Vanegas said he was not tortured but lived with vermin as cellmates.

The "marathon man" was one of about 100 people deemed political prisoners by rights groups who were granted conditional release Feb. 27, the same day Ortega’s government resumed long-stalled talks with the Civic Alliance opposition group.

While negotiators have agreed on a roadmap for the talks, Vanegas sees the process as fraught with pitfalls "because reconciliation cannot be imposed by decree, and this government has committed crimes against humanity."

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 325 people were killed in the unrest and more than 2,000 wounded, while more than 50,000 fled Nicaragua. The government puts the death toll at 198.

The day after he was released, Vanegas laced up his shoes and began running through his neighborhood, surrounded a pack of journalists. Twice police detained him and warned him not to leave home.

So he stopped. The tiny, dark and cluttered house in the working-class neighborhood of La Luz is being watched day and night, he said, with police patrols passing every half hour.

Vanegas lives alone because his partner was allegedly warned she should stay away from him. His four children visit and bring food, "but they are also afraid," he said.

"I risked my life to put Daniel Ortega in power," Vanegas said, "and now he has me locked up in my own home."

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Nicaragua’s government announced its agenda Saturday for talks on resolving a nearly year-old political standoff, but did not give any ground on a key opposition demand — early elections.

A Foreign Ministry statement spelled out several points including the strengthening of electoral institutions; justice and reparations; a review and release of some imprisoned protesters; and negotiations about the suspension of international sanctions.

It said the government is "committed to the strengthening of democracy and respect for the constitutional order of Nicaragua," but pointedly noted that the date for the next general election is "established" for 2021.

Opponents of President Daniel Ortega demanded he leave office and allow an early, fair vote, during widespread protests last year that prompted a government crackdown. At least 325 people died in the unrest, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

On the 770 people the opposition considers political prisoners, the government said it would consider freeing both those awaiting judgment and others already convicted. But it added that it would "review their case files, a situation that does not imply impunity."

Talks between Ortega representatives and the opposition group Civic Alliance resumed Feb. 27, and a so-called roadmap for the negotiations was agreed upon last week.

The opposition has also called for the restoration of freedom of expression guarantees after a crackdown on independent media and a de facto ban on anti-government protests.

The government statement came a day after Roman Catholic bishops said they were declining to participate in the negotiations as observers.

The Civic Alliance said following the church’s announcement that it would reflect and "reconsider" whether to continue negotiating with the government.

Jose Pallais, a member of the opposition delegation, said it would continue to assess the situation over the weekend and called on the government to make "overwhelming gestures to give legitimacy and recognition to the process of negotiation."

"The government came out and published its agenda because the bishops’ refusal to participate in the dialogue puts at risk its strategy of buying time, and it wants to avoid having the Civic Alliance walk away from the negotiation," said Monica Baltodano, a former commander in Ortega’s Sandinista movement who switched to the opposition 20 years ago.

Also Saturday, the Organization of American States said it had designated a special envoy to Nicaragua who, "at the request of the government," will meet on Monday with delegates to the talks to discuss possible OAS participation.

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Talks over Nicaragua’s political standoff are set to resume, with renewed hopes among those who believe they could help resolve the nearly year-old crisis, even as others worry that embattled President Daniel Ortega could use them to buy time.

Roman Catholic authorities will participate as observers in the negotiations starting Wednesday. The government has not said whether Ortega or his powerful wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo will take part. The opposition delegation will include businesspeople, students and others.

Opposition leaders say they will demand measures such as the release of hundreds of people considered political prisoners and a restoration of media freedoms. But other Ortega opponents have said those should be preconditions for talks, not points of negotiation.

In the words of one opponent: "Human rights are nonnegotiable."

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