Imprisoned Nicaraguan Bishop Rolando Álvarez appeared unexpectedly on Nicaraguan television March 24, more than six weeks after refusing to be exiled from his country, opting instead to face his sentence of 26 years behind bars.
Pale, gaunt and dressed in blue, Bishop Álvarez was reunited with his brother and sister for a meal at the La Modelo prison, where he has been held since hastily being convicted in a secret trial of conspiracy for "undermining national integrity" and spreading false information.
The appearance followed weeks of Catholic leaders and human rights groups demanding proof of life -- with the last photos of Bishop Álvarez dating back to a Jan. 10 court date. He had previously been held under house arrest after being detained in an August 2022 raid on his diocesan headquarters.
Government-friendly media showed Bishop Álvarez breaking bread with his siblings, then switched to a coerced interview with him. Bishop Álvarez was asked to confirm he had received "dignified treatment" -- something he confirmed, though other political prisoners have described their conditions as squalid.
The interviewer then told Bishop Álvarez, "We’re glad to see you doing well," to which the smiling bishop responded, "How do I look? Healthy? And my face, how does it look?"
Bishop Álvarez’s response ignited a social media storm among Nicaraguans -- many of whom have fled the Central American country as the Ortega regime turns increasingly tyrannical and suppresses all dissenting voices.
"It overjoys me to see photos of my brother, Monsignor Rolando. I give thanks to God that he’s alive!" tweeted Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Baez of Managua, who is exiled in Miami. "The dictatorship’s staging of this has been repugnant and cynical and doesn’t erase its crime. The force of the people’s prayers and international pressure has been revealed. Release him now!"
Bishop Baez said in his March 26 homily, "Those who have locked up and have wanted to silence Rolando’s voice, don’t be deceived: you are the true prisoners, prisoners of evil, of ambition, of cruelty. Remove the stone from the prison door and release the bishop."
Nicaraguan lawyer Yader Morazán told OSV News that the regime likely considered international pressure in presenting the bishop, as human rights lawyers are investigating the forced disappearance.
He also noted the bishop’s attire didn’t match the clothing given to inmates in Nicaraguan prisons.
"We can see this as using the justice system for political propaganda, having now exhibited a person this way," said Morazán, who fled Nicaragua in 2018 and was recently stripped of his citizenship.
Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have branded Catholic bishops "terrorists" and "coup plotters," and recently severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The Vatican closed its embassy in Managua in March with the chargé d’affaires, Monsignor Marcel Diouf, leaving the country.
"We have a bishop in prison, a very serious and capable man, who wanted to give his testimony and did not accept exile," Pope Francis told the Argentine media outlet Infobae just prior to relations being severed. "It is something from outside of what we are living, as if it were a communist dictatorship in 1917 or a Hitlerian one in 1935."
Nicaragua released 222 political prisoners Feb. 9, sending them to the United States and stripping them of their Nicaraguan citizenship. Bishop Álvarez refused to board the plane and was subsequently convicted and sentenced.