Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government lifted Central American peace hopes Friday by pardoning almost 1,900 political prisoners.
The prisoners, members of former dictator Anastasio Somoza's national guard, were reunited with their families in an emotional ceremony at Managua's Tipitapa prison.The pardon fulfilled one of Nicaragua's obligations under a Central American peace plan signed in El Salvador last month.
"To give effect to the El Salvador accord, it is necessary to grant a pardon to the ex-guardsmen who were justly imprisoned for crimes against the Nicaraguan people," said a presidential pardon read by Information Minister Manuel Espinoza.
The release of the guards, jailed since Somoza was ousted in a 1979 revolution, is traumatic for many Nicaraguans.
The guards were sentenced to up to 30 years on charges ranging from criminal association to rape, torture and murder. But international human rights groups say many were tried unfairly.
Former guard Sgt. Nicolas Corrales Umanzor, 51, walked out of jail unrepentant. "I was jailed only for being a soldier. I have not committed any crime. Now I want to support my family," he said.
At the El Salvador summit, President Daniel Ortega agreed to release political prisoners and make political reforms in return for a promise from Central American leaders to work to disband U.S.-backed Contra rebels fighting his government.
Some 1,645 ex-guards, including two women, stood in rows on a dusty prison parade ground under the eye of scores of prison warders at a ceremony attended by Ortega, ministers, opposition politicians and clergy.
Visiting dignitaries included the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Joao Baena Soares.
The pardon covered another 249 guardsmen being held under house arrest or other restrictions.
As their names were read out in alphabetical order, the guards stepped forward one by one to receive their release papers and walk to freedom.
The long list of names, which took almost an hour to read, represented almost half of Tipitapa's 3,500 prisoners, officials said.
The guards, wearing civilian clothes provided by the International Red Cross, then joined thousands of relatives who had been waiting for hours under the hot sun.
Tearful mothers hugged their sons and wives kissed husbands they had been separated from for 10 years.
"I'm very happy because they are going to free my brother," one of the waiting relatives, Paola Mercado Velasquez, told Reuters.
The release was the biggest ever in Nicaragua, overshadowing the pardon of 985 political prisoners in November 1987.