Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, executive producer and series creator of the hit show “Riverdale,” is pleading for the release of his father, Francisco, a 77-year-old political pundit and former Nicaraguan foreign minister. He has been sitting for more than 60 days in Nicaragua’s notorious “Nuevo Chipote” prison, where critics of President Daniel Ortega’s government are being subject to mistreatment and torture, activists and family members say.
“The biggest fear is that I’m not gonna get a chance to see him again, and that one day, we’re going to get a call that says he died in jail,” Roberto told CBS News in an interview.
Francisco is one of 37 people that include presidential candidates, journalists, students and others that have been detained in Nicaragua since late May, according to Human Rights Watch.
Roberto detailed his family’s ordeal in Time magazine. Francisco and his wife, Gladys, who live in Nicaragua, were driving to Costa Rica in late July to hop on a flight to Washington, D.C. for his hip replacement surgery. While not an uncommon method of traveling to the U.S., said Roberto, the couple was stopped at the Nicaraguan border and had to turn back to Managua. During their return trip, authorities arrested him and let Gladys go.
Days later, Nicaragua’s national police said he was being investigated on a series of charges related to allegedly asking for and accepting foreign funding to engage in anti-government activities, and calling on foreign countries to intervene in Nicaragua’s affairs and invade the country.
While Francisco regularly wrote opinion columns in a Nicaraguan newspaper, Roberto told CBS News he has no idea what prompted authorities to detain him, except that it “came out of the blue.”
“The only thing I can say is … the closer that we’ve gotten to the Nicaraguan election, the more paranoid and ruthless the regime has gotten,” he said.
Ortega, who has been accused of human rights violations in the past, is seeking his fourth consecutive term on November 7 and in recent months, efforts to silence his critics have ramped up. According to Human Rights Watch, police have cited provisions in a recently passed law to arrest Francisco and others, who are considered “traitors” under the legislation. Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas deputy director at Human Rights Watch, told CBS News on Monday that the country’s judicial system has been used to prosecute opponents and it has “no judicial independence.”
“This is part of a much broader attempt of concentration of power in a country without any checks and balances,” she said, adding that Ortega and his wife and vice president Rosario Murillo have trying to seize more power within the government after the massive 2018 anti-government protests.
Since Francisco’s arrest, Gladys tries to deliver food, water and medicine at the prison, but gets denied. However, she saw him once for only 10 minutes, in a meeting that was being recorded, Roberto wrote in Time. Francisco had lost weight, appeared confused and told his wife to stop trying to send him anything since he wasn’t receiving anything, Roberto said.
Roberto’s family isn’t the only one decrying the conditions at Nuevo Chipote. In a joint statement by families of the political prisoners in September, they described the conditions: Physical deterioration of inmates, freezing cells, lights remain on for 24 hours, lack of regularity in the administration of medications, cells that don’t meet international standards and lack of access to reading material. Some of the imprisoned family members, they say, have been kept in solitary confinement for two months.
“All these extreme conditions to which our unjustly imprisoned family members are being subjected constitute as acts of torture,” they said. “We are deeply concerned that these conditions may cause irreversible damage, both physically and psychologically.”
Broner said the U.S., European Union and the United Nations need to push for accountability from Nicaragua.
“I would say is concerted international pressure is essential to send a clear cut message that this is not tolerated by democracies around the world,” Broner said.
In a bipartisan letter addressed to secretary of state Anthony Blinken on Friday, 14 senators called on increased efforts to release at least 150 political prisoners in Nicaragua and urging the Biden administration to expand the use of sanctions. The lawmakers also called on UN Secretary General António Guterres and other UN entities to “encourage sustained international scrutiny and condemnation.” The EU imposed sanctions on several individuals “responsible for serious human rights violations” in Nicaragua, including Murillo, in August.
Roberto is very close with his father and told CBS News it’s “harrowing” to not know how he’s doing – or if he’ll see him alive ever again.
“We have no idea how this ends,” he said, fearing he may be kept indefinitely. “The election will happen in November. I suspect Ortega will win because there’s no credible candidate running against him, and then what will happen?”
“If I have a moment to breathe, I’m thinking about what my dad’s doing at that moment,” he added.
Still, Roberto and his family try to remain optimistic. He remembered the last series of conversations he had with his father: He was finally moving 15 giant boxes of comic books he left in his parents’ Virginia home.
“It’s been kind of a family joke for 25 years that my comic book collection is there,” he said. “I look forward to his thoughts on that when I see him again.”