July 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay activist survives Nicaragua church siege

William Ramírez Cerda , a gay activist and business owner, was among those who were trapped inside a church in Managua, Nicaragua, over the past weekend when government troops and paramilitary groups surrounded it. (Photo courtesy of William Ramírez)

A gay rights activist was among the more than 200 people who were trapped inside a Nicaraguan church that pro-government forces surrounded over the weekend.

William Ramírez Cerda on Monday told the Washington Blade during an hour-long WhatsApp interview that he arrived at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in the country’s capital of Managua on the afternoon of July 13.

Students who have been protesting against President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, had occupied the campus. Ramírez and the students sought refuge in a nearby church after police and paramilitaries forced them out of the university.

Ramírez told the Blade the pro-government forces surrounded the church and opened fire at around 5:30 p.m.

He said students used noisemakers in a desperate attempt to keep them from entering the church. Ramírez said the pro-government forces did not allow a medical student who was shot in the leg to go to the hospital.

“We began what became a desperate night,” he said.

Washington Post Mexico Bureau Chief Joshua Partlow — who was tweeting from inside the church — and a BBC reporter were allowed to leave the church late Friday night with some of those who had been wounded. Ramírez throughout the siege posted updates to his Facebook page.

He said in one post that electricity had been cut to the church. Ramírez a few hours later wrote the police and paramilitaries “are attacking from all sides.”

“They have us surrounded,” Ramírez told the Blade on Saturday morning from inside the church.

Ramírez said a student died after he was shot in the head. He told the Blade on Monday the students were unable to retrieve his body, which was in front of the church.

Two female students who were laying on the floor and crying spoke about the situation inside the church in a Facebook Live video that Ramírez recorded at 4:43 a.m. The 15-hour siege ended a few hours later when Ramírez and the students were allowed to leave the church after Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of the Archdiocese of Managua negotiated with Ortega’s office.

Ramírez recorded a Facebook Live video shortly after he arrived at the Managua Metropolitan Cathedral.

“We are here giving thanks,” he said.

Ramírez told the Blade that he and the students were able to receive water, food and medication and had access to psychologists. Ramírez also said those who were trapped inside the church did not think they would survive the siege.

“[We thought] it was going to be our last night [on earth] because the attacks were so strong,” he said.

Upwards of 300 people killed during protests

Ortega — who led the Sandinista movement that toppled then-dictator Anastasio Somoza’s government in 1979 — has been Nicaragua’s president since 2007. There were no visible anti-government protests in Managua when the Blade reported from Nicaragua at the end of the February, even though opposition leaders have said the country has become more authoritarian under Ortega and Murillo’s rule.

A billboard in Managua, Nicaragua, promotes Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. There were no visible anti-government protests when the Washington Blade was reporting from the Nicaraguan capital of Managua in February. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The protests began in April after Ortega announced cuts to the country’s social security benefits that he later rescinded. Protesters were also upset over the government’s response to a fire at the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.

Upwards of 300 people have died during the protests.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert in a statement she issued on Monday noted pro-government forces have also targeted journalists and priests.

“We call on Ortega to cease his repression of the people of Nicaragua immediately,” she said.

Media reports on Wednesday indicate pro-government forces have retaken control of an opposition stronghold in Masaya, a city that is roughly 25 miles southeast of Managua.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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