Nicaragua’s treatment of pastors in prison rebuked by Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

The lives and health of the 11 pastors and ministry leaders imprisoned on questionable legal grounds must be safeguarded, the body says.

Evangelical Focus

Protestante Digital · MANAGUA · 15 MAY 2024 · 12:46 CET

Photos of the imprisoned pastors in Nicaragua. / Photo: [link]ADF International[link].,
Photos of the imprisoned pastors in Nicaragua. / Photo: [link]ADF International[link].

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has urgently demanded that the Nicaraguan government safeguard the lives and health of 11 pastors and ministry leaders who have been imprisoned on questionable legal grounds.

The decision follows a petition filed by the Christian legal defence group ADF International.

The religious leaders were sentenced to long prison terms ranging from 12 to 15 years. They are also being fined more than 80 million US dollars each on money laundering charges.

Kristina Hjelkrem, legal advisor to ADF International, has expressed her gratitude for the IACHR's swift action, which she says reflects the gravity of the situation.

“No one should be imprisoned or punished for their faith, but that is exactly what has happened”, Hjelkrem said. “It is our prayer that the Nicaraguan authorities will uphold the human rights and dignity of these pastors and release them from their unjust imprisonment”.


The imprisonment

The arrests of these 11 evangelical leaders originated in December 2023, when the Nicaraguan police accused them of using their religious organisation, Mountain Gateway, as a front for money laundering.

This branch of the US-based Christian organisation had been actively involved in large evangelistic campaigns throughout Nicaragua, attracting more than a million people according to its spokespersons.

The trial, which resulted in harsh sentences in March 2024, was conducted behind closed doors and marred by a notable lack of credible evidence, observers said. The ministry and its supporters vehemently denied the charges and claimed its operations were legal and transparent.

According to international media sources, Mountain Gateway said in January that prosecutors believed the Nicaraguan pastors were under the direction of the missionary group’s Jon Britton Hancock, Jacob Britton Hancock and Cassandra Mae Hancock, all US citizens, and Nicaraguans Walner Omier Blandón Ochoa and Maricela de Fátima Mejía Ruiz.

The pastors were imprisoned “for more than a month without legal representation or contact with their families”, the religious organisation said at the time.

Althgough later the government “allowed a lawyer to be appointed to represent Mountain Gateway's Nicaraguan pastors”, no “charging documents or any files to prepare a defence” were made available to the defendants.

Mountain Gateway stated that it had diligently followed all legal requirements in the United States and in Nicaragua, and that it had documentation showing that the government of the Central American country approved all funds coming into the country and ensured that they were used properly.


Against dissidents

In a separate case, Bishop Rolando Álvarez was also sentenced to 26 years. Now in exile, his case is seen by international media as part of a wider government strategy to repress dissenting religious voices.

Christian organisation Open Doors has also highlighted the increasing persecution of Christians in Nicaragua, especially since the 2018 anti-regime protests.

Government repression has included arrests of Christian leaders, confiscation of Christian property, and closures of schools, television stations and Christian NGOs.

Legal amendments have branded church leaders as terrorists, and the government seeks to control church finances.

A bipartisan group of 58 members of Congress of the Unites States has expressed deep concern about these religious freedom violations in a letter sent to the Nicaraguan ambassador.

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