- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

MANAGUA, Nicaragua

Alberto Boschi came to Nicaragua a decade ago to help impoverished glue sniffers and gang members, but fled back to his native Italy in December after a Sandinista judge sentenced him to one year in jail.

Mr. Boschi says his trial - which led to his conviction and sentencing on what he says is a false charge of carrying an illegal firearm - was a farce and that he is “probably only the first political convict” since President Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007.

“Ortega has installed a dictatorship in which there’s no space for those that aren’t his family or the few people that are close to him,” Mr. Boschi told The Washington Times in a phone interview from Milan, where he learned via Internet news that his appeal was recently rejected.

Opposition leaders accuse Mr. Ortega, a former rebel commander, of trying to re-establish a one-man rule like that of the late Anastasio Somoza, whom Mr. Ortega’s Sandinistas toppled in a 1979 revolution.

Mr. Ortega, however, says he is a democrat who tolerates dissent.

“Nicaragua is a country with the most ample liberties,” he said in a recent speech in Managua. He calls his critics “oligarchs” and says they are jealous that “the poor are in power.”

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy group that specializes in Latin America, says he is suspicious of Mr. Ortega’s democratic claims.

“Ortega’s intolerance of any dissent is among the most extreme and troubling in the hemisphere,” Mr. Shifter said by e-mail.

“He may be calculating that most other governments are so consumed by their national problems, especially as economic conditions worsen, that they will not pay much attention to violations of political rights in Nicaragua,” Mr. Shifter said.

Opponents accuse Mr. Ortega of rigging November’s mayoral elections in his party’s favor and of making clandestine deals with corrupt politicians in exchange for increasing his power over the impoverished country’s democratic institutions.

When the Supreme Court lifted a 20-year prison sentence against Liberal party boss and ex-President Arnoldo Aleman in January, third-party opponents suspected that Mr. Aleman had brokered a backroom deal with Mr. Ortega.

Such suspicions have never been proven, and Mr. Aleman denies the accusations.

Unlike the Somoza dynasty, which relied on the National Guard police force to quash dissent, Mr. Ortega is backed by Sandinista party supporters who blockade opposition marches and sometimes provoke violent clashes.

Mr. Ortega’s government has shown mercy to some critics. Recently, it dropped a money-laundering probe of journalists and 17 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that the Ortega government suspected of working with opposition movements.

The investigation was closed under pressure from the U.S. and European governments, which together withheld more than $100 million in aid.

But the NGOs, which include Britain’s Oxfam, could still face administrative sanctions.

The clemency did not extend to Mr. Boschi. A naturalized Nicaraguan, Mr. Boschi had just announced his candidacy with an opposition party in the industrial town of Ciudad Sandino, north of the capital, when the Ortega government purged his party from the electoral ballot in June and sparked the first anti-government protests since Mr. Ortega’s return.

Mr. Boschi and opposition leaders believe that Mr. Ortega orchestrated the conviction of Mr. Boschi to punish the Italian aid worker for challenging the Sandinista party’s control of the streets.

Mr. Ortega fought a decade-long civil war against the U.S.-backed Contra rebels in the 1980s before losing an election in 1990. He remained in the opposition until winning the presidential election in late 2006.

His return to power has other opposition leaders worrying that they will be next on a political hit list.

“Ortega will kneecap any opposition movement that arises,” said Israel Lewites, a former opposition-party spokesman who was recently accused of leading violent protests.

Mr. Lewites is the nephew of the late Herty Lewites, a former Managua mayor who challenged Mr. Ortega in the 2006 election but died mysteriously days before the election. A doctor said he had a heart attack, but Mr. Lewites’ widow refused to allow an autopsy.

Israel Lewites hit the streets after his party was banned and is now being investigated. Furious at the charges, he set out on a solo protest in the October rain carrying a sign reading: “We all have the right to peaceful protest.”

A month later, the Sandinistas responded to charges of rigging mayoral elections by sending supporters to confront opposition marches in the streets with guns and rocks.

Mr. Lewites’ fury has since given in to gloom.

“This whole farce makes me very sad,” he said, adding that he fears that giving interviews to reporters may trigger a trial against him.

Since the latest elections, Mr. Ortega is suspected to have revived a decade-old alliance with Mr. Aleman - the president from 1997 to 2002 - that led judges to lift the latter’s 2003 conviction for embezzling and laundering millions of dollars from public coffers.

Opposition leaders say they fear that Mr. Ortega persuaded the courts to free Mr. Aleman in exchange for a promise to back reforms that would allow the Sandinista leader to run for re-election in 2011.

Shortly after his release in January, Mr. Aleman told reporters that he plans to run for president again in 2011. Officials in the Ortega government responded by reminding Mr. Aleman of pending corruption probes in Nicaraguan courts.

Jaime Chamorro, a journalist whose family owns Nicaragua’s major daily newspaper, La Prensa, was convicted of defamation last year for critical coverage of Sandinista policies.

He was also among 20 Ortega opponents indicted in a corruption probe surrounding Nicaragua’s 2001 banking system collapse.

Eduardo Montealegre, who ran against Mr. Ortega for the presidency in 2006, also appears in the indictment.

The judge who sentenced Mr. Boschi and also sentenced Mr. Chamorro said judges make decisions based on evidence, not politics.

“What I’m obligated to do is comply with the law. I don’t know if a culprit is Liberal [party] or Sandinista, poor or rich,” Judge Celso Urbina told The Times.

From exile in Italy, Mr. Boschi said by telephone, “I don’t think they’ll find me here.”

Some opposition legislators are proposing an amnesty bill so Mr. Boschi can return to Nicaragua and continue his work at a Catholic high school he founded.

But Mr. Boschi said he doesn’t expect to come back to his adopted homeland anytime soon.

“I know I’ll receive death threats if I return,” he said. “I know that, but I’ll be able to confront that. What I fear is that they could decide to put me in jail.”

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