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Bishop Álvarez would accept exile, health declines

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Jailed Nicaraguan Bishop Rolando Álvarez is willing to leave Nicaragua and is in rapidly declining health, multiple informed sources have told The Pillar.

Bishop Rolando Alvarez, in a still frame from a video released by the Nicaraguan government, and dated Nov. 27, 2023. The government has claimed that Alvarez is well-fed and receiving adequate medical care in prison, while human rights campaigners claim he is being mistreated.

While local media have reported that Álvarez has repeatedly refused to go into exile and chosen to remain in prison, sources with direct knowledge say the bishop is willing to leave Nicaragua, but was not given a clear opportunity to leave when other political prisoners were exiled in February.

The Pillar has confirmed that account both with sources close to the bishop, and those familiar with ecclesial and political negotiations to secure his release.

The bishop, who has been detained since August 2022, is still in the early stages of a 26-year-prison sentence, and those close to him question how long his health will last in jail. 

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Reports emerged earlier this year that Álvarez refused to take a Feb. 9 opportunity to be exiled to the United States, when 222 political prisoners were sent from Nicaragua, including several priests. 

Soon after their arrival in the U.S., one exiled priest told The Pillar that he and fellow prisoners were taken from El Chipote — a notorious Nicaraguan prison — and given the opportunity to sign documents indicating that they would voluntarily leave Nicaragua for the United States. 

Those who signed were subsequently stripped of Nicaraguan citizenship, and flown to the United States.

Bishop Álvarez was widely reported to have been given the same opportunity, and to have refused to leave his country.

But informed sources have told The Pillar that account is not an accurate depiction the facts, and that Alvarez was not toldthat exile to the United States was a possibility.

Instead, while other political prisoners signed in February clearly defined documents accepting their exile, Álvarez was asked by Nicaraguan authorities to sign a blank sheet of paper, according to several sources with direct knowledge of the circumstance.

The paper was presented as effectively a blank confession, sources said. He refused to sign. 

Álvarez was not informed of how his signature might be used, what he would be said to have admitted to, or where he might be sent if he was exiled from the country, sources confirmed.

At the time he was asked to sign, the bishop had been kept in isolation from other political prisoners, and was unaware that more than 200 other Nicaraguans had been presented with the opportunity for exile to the United States, sources explained.

Priests who have passed through Nicaraguan prisons told The Pillar that interrogators routinely told prisoners they would be eventually sent to Iran or China. 

That prospect likely explains why Álvarez refused to sign the paper he was presented in February, according to sources close to the bishop — along with uncertainty about how his signature on blank pages might be used by the Nicaraguan government.

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In recent months Álvarez has “without a doubt” expressed his willingness to be exiled, according to several sources close to the bishop. 

Images released by the Nicaraguan government Nov. 30 indicate that the bishop is in declining health: he appears to be losing weight in prison, and to have an increasingly pallid complexion.

While the Nicaraguan government has insisted that Álvarez, 57, is receiving medical care, family visits, and mail, sources close to the case have disputed those assertions, and emphasized to The Pillar that the bishop’s health is precarious. 

A priest who was imprisoned in El Chipote told The Pillar that prisoners sometimes receive food or drink containing laxatives or other substances to induce vomiting. Those elements are intended, the priest claimed, to put pressure on prisoners during the long interrogations to which they are subjected. 

The priest said that because food can’t be trusted, political prisoners in Nicaragua tend to lose considerable weight and become extremely weak while incarcerated.

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Álvarez was placed under house arrest in August 2022, after protesting the closure of a television station and 10 Catholic radio stations, along with imposing a government-ordered siege at Divina Misericordia Parish, which began after Father Uriel Vallejos refused to hand over the radio equipment of the station that operated from his parish.

In February 2023, while other political prisoners were exiled, Álvarez was sent to La Modelo prison and sentenced to 26 years in prison for conspiracy. His Nicaraguan nationality was revoked.

While Álvarez is now willing to go into exile, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega appears to have changed his position on the bishop.

Ortega indicated earlier this year that he was willing to expel Álvarez from the country, but the president now seems set on keeping him in prison, according to analysts in the country, rather than see him gain an international platform outside Nicaragua. 

Late last month, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States House of Representatives held a hearing urging Álvarez’ release, during which two Nicaraguan priests testified anonymously about their experiences of incarceration in "El Chipote.”

"They threatened me and my family because they wanted me to declare that the bishop was a member of an organization that promoted a coup d'état and that he received money from the United States and the European Union," said one of the priests.

"Other interrogations had to do with the homilies that the bishop had given (...) in which, according to them, he was inciting people to rise up to protest against the government," the priest added.

At the hearing, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), said:“The video of Bishop Álvarez released this week by the government of Nicaragua raises serious questions and concerns about his well being. He has lost weight. Is he ill? Is he being provided proper nutrition and basic medical care? We have no idea what is going on day to day.”

Smith urged Álvarez’ release, indicating Ortega’s reluctance to see the priest exiled.

“Out of an abundance of concern for Bishop Álvarez’s welfare and health, let him come to the United States or to the Vatican or somewhere else or stay right in Nicaragua, where he can again serve the people, preach the Good News of the Gospel, and care for the weakest and most vulnerable,” Smith pled.

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