The Biden Administration again criticized the Nicaraguan government on Tuesday for “unjustly” incarcerating Roman Catholic bishop Rolando Álvarez to decades in prison for alleged treason, demanding the current regime free the religious leader immediately and without conditions.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller called on Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo to release Álvarez of the Catholic Diocese of Matagalpa, who has spent more than 500 days in La Modelo Tipitapa — one of Latin America’s most notorious prisons.
“During that time, Nicaraguan authorities have kept Bishop Álvarez in isolation, blocked independent evaluation of the conditions of his imprisonment, and released staged videos and photographs that only increase concerns about his well-being,” Miller said.
A court in Nicaragua sentenced Álvarez to more than 26 years in prison, stripped him of his citizenship and declared him a traitor last February “for undermining national integrity” and “propagation of false news.”
Authorities convicted the bishop after he refused to be exiled to the United States with four other priests and 222 other political prisoners who were expelled to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchange with the U.S. State Department.
The bishop chose to remain in Nicaragua in protest against Ortega-Murillo’s escalated crackdown on the Catholic Church in recent years.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Nicaraguan government has shut down charities, stripped universities of funding and legal status, eliminated non-governmental organizations and banned news media.
Ortega derided the prisoners as “criminal mercenaries” working for foreign powers to undermine the sovereignty of the country, according to previous televised remarks. The Nicaraguan president also alleged Catholic leaders were involved in a plot to overthrow him, citing their role as mediators with protest groups following the 2018 protests in the country that resulted in about 300 deaths, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans fleeing, and many others imprisoned.
In March, Pope Francis compared Álvarez’s imprisonment to Hitler’s regime and called Ortega “unstable.”
Still, Álvarez and many religious leaders are now detained in Nicaragua, including fellow Bishop Isidoro Mora and several priests.
“The Ortega-Murillo regime continues to impose severe restrictions on religious communities and deny Nicaraguan citizens the ability to freely practice their religions and express their beliefs,” Miller said.
U.S. officials have long accused Ortega’s administration of crimes against humanity for waging war against religious freedom and civil liberties. Both the Trump and Biden administrations and members of Congress passed measures to sanction financial lifelines to the Nicaraguan government.
However, New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith, senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told Fox News Digital the Biden administration has not been doing enough to address Nicaragua’s erosion of civil society and growing relationship with foreign adversaries like China, Russia and Iran, suggesting the U.S. needs to add more “concrete steps to punish the regime.”
“We need to put a sanction on their banks, our banks, they can’t use our banks,” he said. “That was the one sanction that worked more than any other when it came to Iran. Not allowing — obviously — oil to flow to China, but the use of our banks.”
Smith said U.S. officials should also “fully implement” the requirements of the RENACER Act, a bill President Biden signed into law to extend sanctions against Nicaragua in connection to corruption and human rights violations by the Ortega administration.
The bill also required the White House to review Nicaragua’s participation in the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement — a two-decade-old regional pact that the Biden administration considered expelling the Central American country to deprive Ortega’s government of significant export earnings and foreign investment, according to The Associated Press.
“How could they be benefiting from a trade deal, given the absolute police state that they’re running?” Smith asked. “So we need to go to that and go with that aggressively. Otherwise, [Ortega] is going to kill more people — the salt of the Earth and the kindest people on Earth.”
Smith, who described himself as a staunch advocate of religious freedom, held congressional hearings last year supporting Álvarez’s release and sent a letter to Ortega requesting a meeting with the bishop.
“He’s a courageous man, but he wants to leave,” he said. “We are praying for him — I think prayer is important. But it says in the Bible, ‘faith without works is dead.’ We need the works of a government — our government — that can make a difference, and they can make a difference.”
“This has to be all hands on deck,” he added. “How many more church people, more priests are going to be locked up? They’re not well-treated once they’re locked up, because we all know they are mistreated in the most extreme ways.”
Local reports have claimed Nicaraguan authorities have taken priests from their homes and beaten them due to praying for Álvarez.
Fox News Digital’s Jon Brown and Andrew Mark Miller contributed to this report.