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Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is facing backlash inside and outside the country

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Criticism of Nicaragua's government is building in and outside of the country. This week, the United Nations Council said it would begin to investigate alleged abuses there. And in a rare rebuke, Nicaragua's then-ambassador to a regional organization accused President Daniel Ortega of being a dictator. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Ortega is undeterred and continues to crack down on critics.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Arturo McFields Yescas says he finally feels free since he made his public condemnation of President Daniel Ortega more than a week ago.

ARTURO MCFIELDS YESCAS: I don't regret an inch of the decision I made, and I feel like a heavy weight was removed from my heart.

KAHN: During an online session of the Organization of American States, Ambassador McFields said his government has become a dictatorship. He told his stunned colleagues he couldn't remain silent anymore. He then promptly resigned.

MCFIELDS YESCAS: I was tired of defending the undefensible (ph), the cruelty - for me, the cruelty of the government.

KAHN: Foremost, McFields says, is the inhumane jailing of more than 170 political prisoners including presidential hopefuls, business leaders and journalists. He says they're kept in dark cells for days on end, denied decent food or regular visits. Reached by phone in Washington, D.C., McFields, a former reporter himself, said independent media has been silenced.

MCFIELDS YESCAS: The most prestigious and old newspaper of the country is shut down, taken over by the police. And the police remains there with guns and everything.

KAHN: The manager of that newspaper, La Prensa, was sentenced Thursday to nine years in prison on what supporters say are trumped-up money laundering charges. Asked for a comment about McFields, Nicaragua's vice president, Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife, only thanked NPR for its interest.

Also this week, Ortega moved to take control of the country's autonomous universities and cut money to a private college whose students were at the forefront of large anti-government protests in 2018. Ernesto Medina, a former rector at two universities, now in exile in Germany, says Ortega is haunted by those large demonstrations.

ERNESTO MEDINA: I think he has nightmare with that, and he wants to guarantee that never again can happen in Nicaragua.

KAHN: Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council said it would investigate alleged abuses by the government. That drew a strong rebuke from Nicaragua's attorney general, Wendy Carolina Morales Urbina.

WENDY CAROLINA MORALES URBINA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Morales told the U.N. Council that such resolutions are based on nonobjective, imperialist actors set on interfering in national matters. However, the few independent organizations left inside Nicaragua celebrated a U.N. investigation.

VILMA NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "This dictatorship has developed a secretive policy of repression," says Vilma Nunez, a longtime human rights activist. NPR reached her by phone in Nicaragua.

NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "That's why I keep speaking out," she says. "If you don't hear from me again, it's not because I stopped talking." "It's because they shut me up," she adds. Nunez says she believes she's not been jailed because of her advanced age. She's 83. Former OAS ambassador Arturo McFields says he fears he'll be jailed if he goes home. He hopes his outspokenness inspires other officials.

MCFIELDS YESCAS: I am the first one, but I am not the last one. Maybe hundreds of public officers will come after me, speaking of their mind and risking their positions to speak through to power.

KAHN: McFields says he's been offered asylum in a nearby country. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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