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U.S. facilitates release of 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners, including 1 American

Washington — The Biden administration facilitated the release of 222 political prisoners in Nicaragua, including at least one American citizen, and flew them to the U.S., Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday.

The prisoners, some of whom had been in custody for several years, landed at Dulles International Airport in Virginia and received medical care and legal assistance upon arrival, Blinken said in a statement

Two U.S. officials said Nicaragua opted to unilaterally release the prisoners, who are a mix of opposition leaders, journalists, students and academics. Among the released prisoners is Michael Healy Lacayo, who has dual U.S.-Nicaraguan citizenship and was arrested in Oct. 2021 ahead of Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega's reelection and was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Healy was a leader of various business organizations in Nicaragua and a critic of the Ortega government.  

President Biden, in an interview with Telemundo Thursday said of the release of Nicaraguan political prisoners, "We believe all political prisoners should be released. And whether this is a token of their demonstration that they're ready to begin to change the human rights policies or not remains to be seen. But the fact that they were released, we're happy to receive them, and I'm glad they're out."

Blinken said the release "marks a constructive step towards addressing human rights abuses" in Nicaragua and "opens the door to further dialogue" between to two countries. The secretary said the prisoners' release was "the product of concerted American diplomacy," and vowed that the U.S. will "continue to support the Nicaraguan people."

The prisoners consented to being released and left Nicaragua voluntarily. They will be given legal status in the U.S., with plans to parole them for humanitarian reasons for at least two years, the officials said. It was not immediately clear what, if anything, Nicaragua will get in exchange for releasing the prisoners. 

The decision to release the prisoners by Ortega's government comes after the number of Nicaraguans seeking to enter the U.S. illegally spiked to a record high last year, fueled by migrants fleeing political persecution and harsh economic conditions. Border apprehensions plummeted in January, a drop the Biden administration has attributed to new measures that would allow tens of thousands of migrants to apply to enter the U.S. from their home countries, while ramping up expulsions under a COVID-era authority known as Title 42.

U.S. officials described Ortega's decision to release prisoners as "a positive and welcome one." But the 77-year-old is widely condemned as a dictator for his decision to suppress critics and refusal to permit free elections. He and members of his government remain sanctioned by the Biden administration after he won a fourth term in 2021 in what the U.S. called a "sham" election. He had previously led Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.

The decision also comes as Biden administration officials continue to work to restore democratic rights in Venezuela, facilitating recent talks between the government of Nicolás Maduro and opposition leaders in Mexico. 

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