Nicaraguan leader backtracks on many civil rights

In what appears to be a return to greater government repression, Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas have again suspended most civil rights. This comes almost a year after having restored them. The move is a disappointment to those who hoped that the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, inaugurated this January, would allow greater freedom, thus strengthening the position of Sandinista moderates.

The Sandinistas said Tuesday's actions were necessary for security reasons, to combat the escalation of military activity by the United States-backed rebels, known as ``contras.'' Sources close to the Sandinistas say contra activity has increased as a result of official resumption of US government aid to the contras.

Among the rights suspended Tuesday were free expression and movement, public assembly, strikes, and the privacy of postal communications. News censorship was strengthend. These steps return the country to a situation similar to that of March l982. At that time, the government proclaimed a state of emergency, shortly after it was publicly disclosed that the US was providing aid to the contras. The state of emergency remained in force until November 1984, when Nicaragua held presidential elections -- the first poll since the Sandinistas came to power in 1979.

These sources say that a key factor behind the crackdown is the constant power struggle between President Ortega, his brother Defense Minister Humberto Ortega Saavedra, their followers, and the more radical group led by Interior Minister Tom'as Borge Mart'inez and Bayardo Arce Castao, a member of the official state party.

Some shift in the inner constellation of power may have caused the Ortegas to make concessions to the hardliners, these sources say.

Another factor, according to Nicaraguan exile analysts, is the growing influence and anti-Sandinista stance of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly of its leader, the newly appointed Cardinal Obando y Bravo. This is an important factor in a predominantly Catholic country.

One of the first acts of the government crackdown was the occupation of a church printing plant by the Ministry of the Interior Police forces. The press was about to begin the publication of a new magazine.

Ortega, in comments accompanying the decree, pointed to groups in the Catholic Church and opposition parties as centers of antigovernment activity.

Nicaraguan leaders presented the most recent elections as a relaxation of government rule that would give more leeway to the opposition and the church.

Many analysts expected that this opening would continue into the Ortega administration. Daniel Ortega was considered one of the more pragmatic Sandinista leaders. They had expected that as the power of the presidency increased, Ortega would gain ascendency over the more radical, hard-line Sandinista groups.

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