Nicaraguan police on Wednesday placed opposition figure Cristiana Chamorro -- a possible challenger to President Daniel Ortega in November elections -- under house arrest, her family said, after government claims that she was guilty of money laundering.
Chamorro, a 67-year-old journalist, is regarded as a serious challenger to Ortega, though he has not confirmed he will seek a fourth term.
Her mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, defeated Ortega for the presidency in 1990 to become the first elected female head of state in the Americas.
Earlier, police had raided Chamorro's home in the capital Managua. After being on site for more than five hours, they placed her "under house arrest, in isolation," her brother Carlos Fernando Chamorro said on Twitter.
"Police are still in her home," he added.
A Managua court said earlier it had ordered her detention on accusations of "abusive management, ideological falsehood" and "the laundering of money, property and assets, to the detriment of the Nicaraguan State and society."
Press reports said police forcefully kept friends and family of Chamorro, as well as journalists, away from the scene.
On Tuesday, prosecutors had accused Chamorro of an array of crimes, and asked for her to be barred from public duties given that she is facing criminal proceedings.
Legal experts have denounced an "illegal" procedure, given that the electoral council has made no ruling on her eligibility.
- 'Farce' -
The accusations arise from Chamorro's role as the head of a foundation for press freedom, with prosecutors claiming accounting "inconsistencies."
Chamorro quit the foundation in February, refusing to comply with a new law obliging any person receiving money from abroad to declare themselves to the government as a "foreign agent."
The prosecution opened an investigation against her on May 20 at the request of the government.
She has rejected the accusations against her as a "farce" meant to prevent her from running in the November poll, which Ortega is widely expected to contest.
Chamorro, who does not belong to a political party, on Tuesday announced she would seek a nomination from the opposition.
Shortly before police entered Chamorro's home Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced the Ortega government's moves against Chamorro, and said the Central American country deserved "real democracy."
"Arbitrarily banning opposition leader @chamorrocris reflects Ortega's fear of free and fair elections. Nicaraguans deserve real democracy," tweeted Blinken, on a visit to Latin America.
The Organization of American States, for its part, warned Nicaragua was "heading for the worst possible elections."
It added in a statement: "This process of systematic and repeated violations of the rule of law and of fundamental freedoms delegitimizes the electoral process even before it takes place."
The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights denounced a "violation of human rights."
- 'Witch hunt' -
Opposition parties in a joint statement accused Ortega of "unleashing a witch hunt" against candidates because he "fears going to a free, transparent and observed" election.
Last month, Nicaragua's legislature appointed a majority of governing party-aligned magistrates to the election body that will oversee the November elections.
It has since disqualified two parties.
In December the legislature approved a law critics say is aimed at preventing opposition politicians from standing in the election. Sponsored by Ortega, it bars "those who ask for, celebrate and applaud the imposition of sanctions against the Nicaraguan state."
Ortega, an ex-guerrilla who governed from 1979 to 1990, returned to power in 2007 and won two successive reelections.
Since 2018, the 75-year-old leader has faced a political crisis triggered by massive protests against the policies of his government.
The demonstrations have left 328 dead and thousands in exile, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Ortega blamed a failed coup attempt backed by Washington.