Nicaraguan Bishop Rolando Álvarez and 18 priests arrive in Rome from prison, guests of Vatican

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Nicaragua's government released a prominent Catholic bishop and 18 other clergy members imprisoned in a crackdown by President Daniel Ortega and handed them over to Vatican authorities who welcomed them in Rome.

Bishop Rolando Álvarez and the other clergy were jailed more than a year ago, in most cases, as part of a crackdown on the opposition and Catholic church by Ortega. He had accused them of supporting massive 2018 civic protests that he claimed were a plot to overthrow him.

The government said in a press statement the releases on Sunday were part of negotiations with the Vatican aimed at “making possible their trip to the Vatican.” In the past, imprisoned priests have been quickly flown to Rome.

Vatican News, the Vatican's in-house media operation, said the group arrived in Rome on Sunday afternoon and were welcomed as “guests of the Holy See.”

Ortega's government said those released also included Bishop Isidoro Mora.

Ortega sent 222 prisoners to the United States in February in a deal brokered by the U.S. government and later stripped those prisoners of their citizenship.

Bishop Álvarez has remained in prison for more than a year after being convicted of conspiracy and receiving a 26-year prison sentence. One of the country’s most outspoken clergy members, had refused to get on the February flight to the United States without being able to consult with other bishops.

In October, Nicaragua released a dozen Catholic priests jailed on a variety of charges and sent them to Rome following an agreement with the Vatican.

Since repressing popular protests in 2018 that called for his resignation, Ortega’s government has systematically silenced opposing voices and zeroed in on the church, including seizing the prestigious Jesuit-run University of Central America in August.

Nicaragua’s Congress, dominated by Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, has ordered the closure of more than 3,000 nongovernmental organizations, including Mother Teresa’s charity.