MANAGUA/WASHINGTON--More than 200 political prisoners in Nicaragua were released and flown to the United States on Thursday, including five former presidential hopefuls and other leading critics of President Daniel Ortega, in what Washington described as a "constructive step" toward improving human rights.
A Nicaraguan judge denounced the 222 prisoners released as "traitors" in a televised statement, and said they had been "deported."
Crowds of people waited to greet their loved ones at Dulles International Airport near Washington, waving flags and chanting "free!", following the surprise move by the Nicaragua government.
A U.S. official told Reuters Managua's goal was to show its desire to improve relations with Washington that have long been frosty, and that Ortega's government did not ask for anything in return. In 2021, Washington imposed sanctions and denounced Ortega's re-election as a "sham" after numerous opponents were jailed ahead of the vote, with journalists and religious figures also later imprisoned.
The released prisoners will be allowed to enter the United States on emergency humanitarian grounds, the administration of President Joe Biden said in a note to Congress.
Speaking on Nicaraguan radio, Vice President Rosario Murillo said Nicaragua had carried out the "expatriation and transfer of people who were sentenced for attacks against sovereignty."
She added: "This sovereign decision of the Nicaraguan state has been taken in the supreme interest of our country, to live in harmony."
Nicaragua's government said it planned to change the law to allow it to strip the freed prisoners of their citizenship, which would effectively close off any future plans they might have of returning. Among those freed were former presidential hopefuls Juan Sebastian Chamorro, Felix Maradiaga, Miguel Mora, Medardo Mairena and Arturo Cruz, as well as prominent student activist Lesther Aleman, a Nicaraguan judicial document showed.
Blinken said dual-citizen Michael Healy, who had been given a 13-year prison sentence, was also released.