U.N. rights office warns over 'trumped-up' arrests in Nicaragua

GENEVA/MANAGUA, Nov 19 (Reuters) - The U.N. human rights office on Tuesday criticized the arrest of 16 anti-government protesters in Nicaragua accused of arms trafficking, saying that the charges appeared to have been "trumped-up."

On Monday, Nicaraguan authorities said the 16 detainees included student protesters such as Nicaraguan and Belgian national Amaya Coppens, who has been arrested previously.

Nicaraguan police also said the protesters were suspected of planning to carry out terrorist attacks in the Central American country, which has been roiled by demonstrations against the administration of President Daniel Ortega since April last year.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman in Geneva for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters the arrests looked like an attempt to silence criticism of the government.

"We are very concerned that these apparently trumped-up charges may constitute a renewed attempt to stifle dissent," said Colville, who also urged the government to respect the rights of hunger strikers in Managua's cathedral.

The Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua on Monday accused groups linked to the government of beating a priest and violently taking control of the cathedral.

"We condemn these acts of desecration, harassment and intimidation, which are not contributing to the peace and stability of the country," the Church said in a statement.

Government supporters occupied the cathedral on Monday after seven mothers of detainees regarded by the opposition as political prisoners said they would begin a hunger strike in the church to demand the release of their children before Christmas.

Nicaraguan government-backed media said the Ortega supporters were demonstrating peacefully against what it described as the politicization of the Church.

"So that churches aren't used as a den of thieves, murderers, rapists ... in practice they're complicit in crimes, murders, rapes," Tomas Valdez, a leader of the government supporters occupying the cathedral, told broadcaster Channel 8.

Human rights groups say more than 320 people have been killed during crackdowns of protests by security forces and armed supporters of the government since demonstrations began.

Colville said everyone who may have been "arbitrarily detained" in the country should be released.

"The government must end the persistent repression of dissent and the ongoing pattern of arbitrary arrests and refrain from criminalizing and attacking human rights defenders, political opponents and any other dissenting voices," he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ismael Lopez in Managua)

((dave.graham@thomsonreuters.com; +52 1 55 5282 7146; Reuters Messaging: dave.graham.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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