Nicaragua presidential contender Felix Maradiaga has been held in an investigation into alleged acts against sovereignty, terrorism and backing international sanctions against the government

Managua (AFP) - Nicaragua had four presidential contenders in detention Wednesday, legally ruling them out of November elections as Daniel Ortega moved against challengers and elicited condemnation of his “dictator” tactics.

On Tuesday, police detained two more would-be presidential rivals as well as two other opposition figures, as the international community protested.

On Twitter, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, urged the release of Juan Sebastian Chamorro Garcia, 50, “and all other political prisoners in #Nicaragua.”

He added: “the harassment and oppression of the dictatorship of… Daniel Ortega must stop. Nicaragua deserves to be free and democratic.”

Chamorro Garcia, the cousin of another detained candidate Cristiana Chamorro – seen as a favourite to beat Ortega in November elections – was arrested Tuesday for “inciting foreign interference in internal affairs.”

He is also accused of “organization with funding from foreign powers to perpetrate terrorist acts,” according to a police statement.

Hours earlier, Felix Maradiaga, 44, was held in an investigation for alleged acts against sovereignty, terrorism and backing international sanctions against the government.

“Presidential candidate Felix Maradiaga’s arbitrary arrest… should resolve any remaining doubts about Ortega’s credentials as a dictator,” tweeted Julia Chung, the top US diplomat for Latin America.

“The international community has no choice but to treat him as such.”

Chung added the arrests demanded “an urgent international response. The Ortega Regime is responsible for the welfare of detainees. They should be released immediately.”

- ‘Night of Long Knives’ -

The crackdown continued into Tuesday night with the arrest of well-known businessman Jose Aguerri and human rights activist Violeta Granera on similar charges to those against Maradiaga and Chamorro Garcia, according to police.

“It is a Night of the Long Knives, tropical version,” tweeted former Costa Rica president Laura Chinchilla.

Cristiana Chamorro is the daughter of a former president and a journalist assassinated for his criticism of a dictatorship

The clampdown started a week ago with Cristiana Chamorro, a journalist not affiliated to a political party, placed under house arrest on government allegations of money laundering, widely seen as trumped up.

Chamorro’s mother Violeta Barrios de Chamorro ousted Ortega in 1990 elections to become president for seven years.

On Saturday, 67-year-old Arturo Cruz, who announced his presidential candidacy two months ago for the conservative Citizen Alliance for Freedom, was ordered held in pre-trial detention so prosecutors can investigate allegations of “provocation… and conspiracy to commit harm to national integrity.”

Maradiaga is a candidate of a non-parliamentary UNAB opposition group that backed protests against Ortega that have resulted in 328 deaths and thousands of exile since 2018, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Chamorro Garcia and Aguerri, in turn, are members of the ACJD alliance negotiating with the government to end the demonstrations.

- ‘Bunch of thieves’ -

Most of those detained face charges under a law initiated by Ortega’s government and approved by parliament in December to defend Nicaragua’s “sovereignty.”

The law prevents Nicaraguans from running for elected office if the government deems they had led or financed a coup, promoted terrorism or incited foreign interference, among other crimes.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have denounced the law.

Ortega, an ex-guerrilla who governed Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, returned to power in 2007 and won two successive reelections.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has been accused of authoritarian rule and the brutal suppression of opposition

Now 75, he has been accused by the opposition and NGOs of increasing authoritarianism and the brutal suppression of demonstrations against his rule. He is widely expected to run in November elections though he has not said so.

The European Union and the United States maintain sanctions against Ortega and his government.

Ortega’s wife and deputy president, Rosaria Murillo, on Tuesday said “justice comes late, but it comes,” as she railed against “this bunch of thieves, not only thieves but also terrorists, criminals.”

Last month, Nicaragua’s legislature appointed a majority of governing party-aligned magistrates to the election body that will oversee the election.

It has since disqualified two parties.