MANAGUA (Reuters) – U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols on Monday put fresh pressure on Nicaragua to release an anti-government bishop condemned last week to a 26-year prison sentence.

The sentencing of Rolando Alvarez, 56, Bishop of Matagalpa and one of the most influential leaders of the country’s Catholic Church, came after more than 200 political prisoners in Nicaragua were released and flown to the United States last Thursday in what Washington described as a “constructive step” toward improving human rights.

Alvarez declined to be expelled to the United States as part of the mass release, however. The Nicaragua government handed down his prison sentence shortly after.

“We condemn the Nicaraguan government’s sentencing of Bishop Rolando Alvarez to 26 years in prison, as well as the decision to strip him and all released political prisoners of Nicaraguan citizenship,” Nichols wrote on Twitter.

Pope Francis, a critic of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, on Sunday also voiced his concern over the imprisonment of the bishop.

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“The news from Nicaragua has grieved me not a little and I cannot help but remember with concern the Bishop of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, whom I love so much,” Pope Francis said.

The U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua Kevin Sullivan, who helped in the mission to transport the freed prisoners, returned on Monday to his post in the Central American country.

The Ortega government last week denied the mass release was done to lift U.S. sanctions or as part of a negotiation.

(Reporting by Ismael Lopez; Writing by Valentine Hilaire; Editing by Isabel Woodford and Kenneth Maxwell)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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