Nicaragua’s congress gave final approval Monday to change the constitution to permit life imprisonment.
Opponents say life sentences could be used against the political opposition, like other recent measures passed by Ortega’s party.
“When there isn't an independent judicial system ... applying sentences like this could be interpreted as a political move to punish any Nicaraguan citizen," said congressman Miguel Rosales of the opposition Liberal Constitutionalist Party.
Ortega has claimed opponents are guilty of “hate crimes,” one of the categories that could be punished by life in prison. In recent months, Ortega’s party has passed laws essentially banning opposition candidates from running in the 2021 presidential election.
Sandinista legislators defended the life sentence measure as providing protection against rapists and killers. The government gathered 3 million signatures supporting the change.
Ortega initially led Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 following the Sandinista revolution that ousted the Somoza dictatorship. He returned to the presidency in 2007 after three failed election attempts, and he won reelection in 2011. He then sidestepped term limits to get himself reelected in 2016, and packed courts and government agencies with allies. The Sandinista party controls the courts and the legislature.
In October, congress approved legislation mandating prison sentences for those who use online platforms to spread false information or information that could raise alarm among people. The bill raised alarm among opposition and human rights groups, who described it as a threat to free speech.
The Special Cyber Crimes Law establishes prison terms of two to four years for “those who promote or distribute false or misleading information that causes alarm, terror, or unease in the public.” The law allows the government to define what information fits that description.