Nicaragua opposition eyes imminent deal on prisoner releases

Nicaragua's opposition is hoping for approval Friday of a schedule for freeing 640 people considered political prisoners, a leader of the opposition group Civic Alliance told The Associated Press.

Azahalea Solis, one of the main leaders of the Alliance and a negotiator in talks with the government aimed at resolving a political standoff, also said in an interview that 162 others released from prison and placed under house arrest since February would be granted more definitive freedom under a proposed deal.

"We hope to have ready today, Friday, the agreement for the liberation of the political prisoners, including the exit schedule for every one of them without exception," Solis said.

She added that efforts are being made for the latest releases to begin this weekend or Monday, and confirmed that all 802 people detained since protests erupted last April would have unrestricted freedom and see their charges and trials annulled.

Security forces and armed, pro-government civilian groups killed hundreds in their crack down on demonstrators who sought President Daniel Ortega's exit from office last year, according to independent monitors.

This week, as negotiations that began Feb. 27 were on hold over the issue of jailed government opponents, Ortega's government agreed to release them all within 90 days, prompting opposition negotiators to return to the table. In the past, authorities have repeatedly characterized anti-government demonstrators as "terrorists" and "coup-plotters."

Speaking Thursday night at a political event, the president told supporters in an apparent allusion to the negotiations that "we do not all think alike, but despite our ideological and differences, we must unite around a sacred goal, which is peace."

Solis told the AP that the 90-day window for releases is a maximum and could end up being shorter.

Still, she cautioned that it will be "a slow and complex" process because it entails documenting a long list of individual cases, including prisoners who have not been prosecuted, others facing trial and some who have already been convicted.

Solis said the Civic Alliance has demanded that police stop detaining government opponents, because otherwise "the list of prisoners will keep growing."

"May all of them go free and clean, without a criminal record, because all the arrests were illegal and due process was violated," Solis said.

The opposition is also seeking guarantees for the safe return of some 52,000 people who have fled the country, and asking that government opponents be able to secure jobs, return to university and get medical care.

Solis said the Alliance will also demand discussion of disarming the pro-government paramilitary groups that attacked protesters, often visibly in coordination with security forces.

The opposition is continuing to seek an early date for elections currently scheduled for 2021.

"Our demand remains the same," Solis said, "free, early and monitored elections."

At least 325 people were killed in last year's violence, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The government puts the figure at 198, and other human rights groups say it tops 500.

The Organization of American States and the Roman Catholic Church are observing the negotiations.