San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

In Nicaragua, Cenis trial suspended after Montealegre no-show

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – The Sandinista government´s much-hyped trial of what it calls “the crime of the century” started and stopped Monday afternoon under the careful watch of media and police, but without the star of the show.

Opposition leader and former banker Eduardo Montealegre, who has been repeatedly singled out among the list of 39 people accused of orchestrating a $600 million banking bailout scheme known as the “Cenis” scandal, refused to answer his legal summons to appear before the judge Monday afternoon.

His failure to show prompted the judge to suspend the proceedings and request that the National Assembly vote to strip Montealegre of his legal immunity so he can be brought to trial.

Montealegre insists the trial is an “illegal” effort by the administration of President Daniel Ortega to manipulate the courts in order to remove Montealegre and several other adversaries from the political scene.

“This is part of an orchestrated political persecution against me and those who have supported me,” Montealegre told The Nica Times during an interview in his Managua office Monday.

Montealegre insists he doesn´t have to participate in the trial because of the immunity he enjoys as a national lawmaker. Five other defendants cited by the judge also failed to show for the trial´s opening, for reasons not known by Monday evening.

The decision by the judge to suspend the proceedings on account of Montealegre´s absence has only fueled speculation that the trial has more to do with targeting him personally than anything else.

The Sandinistas alone don´t have the number of votes needed to strip Montealegre of his immunity, and would need the support of ex-President Arnoldo Alemán´s Liberal Constitutional Party to proceed. Alemán also views Montealegre as a political opponent.

“I think this whole case is being set up to try to get Montealegre out of politics,” said legal analyst Carlos Tunnermann.

Special Prosecutor Armando Juárez last year accused 39 former bank directors and ex-government officials of crimes against the economy, fraud and trafficking of influences for their alleged manipulation of Negotiable Investment Certificates (Cenis) – or government bonds issued to cover the portfolios of four state banks that collapsed in rapid succession between 2000 and 2001. The Cenis, which were allegedly renegotiated at a higher interest rate to favor the three private banking institutions that purchased them, have cost the government some $600 million. Payments on the bonds are still being made, although the government calls the bonds illegal.

The state has never investigated who was responsible for the collapse of the banks, and instead has focused on going after those responsible for the Cenis bailout bonds.

Montealegre insists he´s innocent and points out that his previous posts as a top banker and finance minister did not correspond to the period in which the Cenis were issued or renegotiated. The Sandinistas, however, have been running ads on television for more than a year singling out Montealegre and director of the daily La Prensa, Jaime Chamorro, with the ominous message “the corrupt will pay.”

Even President Daniel Ortega has publicly accused Montealegre of being a “delinquent” responsible for stealing $600 million – raising serious concerns about how he could expect to get a fair trial in a country where the president who appointed the judge has already announced his verdict (NT, June 19).

“It would be like U.S. President Barack Obama telling the Supreme Court it has to rule a certain way,” Montealegre said. “Can you image what the reaction would be in the United States ?”

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