MANAGUA – At the risk of jail time, revolutionary priest Ernesto Cardenal says he refuses to pay a $1,000 fine handed down last week by a Sandinista judge in a five-year-old defamation case against him – a sentence he considers “political and without legal basis.”
“It’s simply revenge for (President Daniel) Ortega,” said Cardenal, an 83-year-old revolutionary priest and poet who has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize for literature.
“In this system now in Nicaragua, anything is possible. I’m ready to go to jail,” said the iconic revolutionary figure, who was flanked by a crowd of leftist intellectuals during an Aug. 28 press conference at the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) in Managua.
Cardenal last week was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for an old slander case from which he claims he was absolved years ago.
Sandinista judge David Rojas said the sentence against Cardenal had never been executed, which was why he did it now in an effort to tie up loose ends around the court.
Cardenal and his backers claim the whole thing was political – an act of revenge by Ortega after Cardenal recently stole the spotlight and revolutionary honors during Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo’s swearing-in ceremony, which Ortega didn’t attend after feminists there called him a rapist and protested his expected arrival. Cardenal, too, has a history of problems with Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo.
In recent years, Cardenal has called Ortega a “false Sandinista” and has even less regard for Murillo, who has been jealous of his cultural leadership role since the 1980s.
A leading figure of the Liberation Theology movement in the 1970s-80s, Cardenal served as the minister of culture during the first Sandinista government in the 1980s but then split from the party in the early 1990s, along with many other Sandinista intellectuals, to form the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
His recent legal problems have drawn a swell of national and international support from leading intellectuals, including acclaimed Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, former Sandinista Vice President Sergio Ramírez and award-winning Nicaraguan poet and writer Gioconda Belli.
Old Case Resurfaced
After the case was originally dismissed years ago, the defamation charges against Cardenal from an old land dispute resurfaced last week – days after the white-haired, beretwearing priest publicly denounced Ortega’s political pact with ex-President and convict Arnoldo Alemán during Lugo’s inauguration in Paraguay.
The legal case started in 2003 when a German man filed charges against Cardenal as part of a dispute over land on the paradisiacal SolentinameIslands, in Lake Nicaragua, where Cardenal runs a local development organization. Cardenal says that his accuser’s lawyer, Juan Ramon Mendez, has also defended Ortega in the past, and that judge Rojas is a former Sandinista state security officer.
Ortega has not commented on Cardenal’s case, but Rojas insists the case is not in any ways political. But Rojas then removed himself from the case on Monday, to avoid further scandal.
Cardenal and his lawyer have taken legal steps to protect the priest from a jail sentence, though because of his age any sentence would most likely be commuted to house arrest. Still, the judge could prevent Cardenal from leaving the country. He often travels to give poetry readings around the world.
Cardenal’s lawyer argued that according to the new Penal Code, civil cases like this one have a statute of limitation of two years, while even criminal cases have a five-year statute of limitations.
“In this case we’re talking about five and a half years,” he said, adding that Cardenal was declared innocent by a different judge in 2005 due to insufficient evidence.
CENIDH director Vilma Núñez said the sentence is a “serious risk” for human rights in Nicaragua – a situation shared by 50 Latin American writers who have already supported Cardenal in a letter.
Ramírez said the Ortega administration is losing its credibility.
“I am conscious that it is the country that is going to suffer in the long term. That’s why we have to break out of this shell of fear, which is of the devil’s egg. So long as we don’t break out of it, we will continue with this situation of great uncertainty, which is obviously not suitable for our country,” Ramírez said.