A Nicaraguan Supreme Court justice who was President Daniel Ortega’s closest legal adviser before he resigned this week accused the president and his wife of running a brutal government that tramples on civil rights and is driving the nation to the brink of civil war.
The justice, Rafael Solis, was speaking in an interview with The New York Times after his resignation on Thursday, which marked the highest-profile defection yet in the country’s nine-month-old political crisis. Government critics said it signaled a possible weakening of the political apparatus that has helped keep Mr. Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, in power long after hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding their ouster.
Mr. Solis was unsparing in his criticism of Mr. Ortega, who he had been allied with since the 1970s.
“The separation of powers in Nicaragua is over,” he said. “The concentration of power is in them, those two people.”
Mr. Solis said he now regretted one of his own most consequential rulings, a 2009 Supreme Court decision that ended term limits and allowed Mr. Ortega to remain in power.
But while critics of the government saw Mr. Solis’s defection as an important show of opposition that could lead to others, he said he had few illusions that his resignation alone would have a big impact on the judiciary or the government where Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo now make all the decisions that matter.
“I wasn’t being very useful: We practically didn’t have any job functions,” Mr. Solis said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location outside Nicaragua. “It was a very limited judiciary.”
Nicaragua, with a population of 6.2 million people, is one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere. It has been rocked by political turmoil since April, when students and older people who picketed against proposed reductions in social security benefits were attacked by pro-government mobs.
The protests quickly spiraled out of control, and several dozen people were killed. The unrest spread to cities around the nation. At least 325 people have been killed and hundreds more imprisoned as public dissent was outlawed.
Mr. Solis had been a loyal member of the president’s Sandinista Front party since he helped Mr. Ortega fight a guerrilla war against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s. He was the only witness at Mr. Ortega’s wedding.
A former member of the legislature and leader in the armed forces, he had been on the Supreme Court for 19 years. During that time, he was an unstinting Ortega loyalist as exemplified by the term-limits ruling that, in effect, let Mr. Ortega run for re-election indefinitely. In the past, presidents were limited to two, nonconsecutive terms.
Mr. Solis was one of the most powerful people in the nation, known as a kind of godfather who people turned to to resolve myriad problems.
Mr. Solis was a key member of the court in 2009 when the magistrates ruled that term limits violated Mr. Ortega’s civil rights. Mr. Solis now calls that ruling “a mistake.”
He said the idea of a second term did not bother him so much, and is allowed in many places. Mr. Ortega is now in his third consecutive five-year term.
“It was the third time that was worrisome,” Mr. Solis said. “I did not think it would bring the nation to this. I never imagined it.”
He said that in the future, Nicaragua should bring back term limits — and should even prohibit two terms.
In the wake of the unrest, the government has maintained that the protesters were agents of “right wing” political parties, the Catholic church, and groups from outside the country that plotted a coup to unseat democratically elected leaders.
Mr. Solis wrote a scathing three-page resignation letter, with a copy of his I.D. attached, that said there was never any attempted coup or outside intervention, “but rather an irrational use of force.”
There are “a great number of detainees with a series of absurd accusations of crimes they never committed,” he wrote.
He said when the crisis broke out, he was in Mexico getting spinal surgery and could easily have written a letter saying he was resigning over health problems. Instead, he said, he chose to tell the truth about a government he no longer believed in.
“I think that the situation Nicaragua is in merited this kind of letter,” he said in the interview.
Mr. Solis said he tried to bring about electoral reform and other measures like plebiscites that would have opened up the democratic process, but “it was not to be.”
His conversations with the president, he said, were perfectly civil.
He said he kept hoping that the president’s addresses at Christmas and New Year would call for peace. But instead, he said the president seemed set against any kind of dialogue or international intervention, which left Mr. Solis no choice but to step down.
Juan Sebastian Chamorro, an opposition leader who was among the members of a failed committee on national reconciliation that tried to end the protests, said Mr. Solis’s resignation signaled that the government’s coalition could be weakening.
“He is the highest ranking official to defect from the regime, and one of the oldest public officials in the judiciary system who dates back to the 80s,” Mr. Chamorro said. “I think that resignation is going to have a whole lot of people who are currently in the government evaluating whether to take a similar action.”
The Ortega family has maintained control of the country, mostly because of loyal allies in key positions, including the police, military, the National Assembly and the courts. But if someone as close to Mr. Ortega as Mr. Solis is willing to step down, others could do the same, Mr. Chamorro said.
“The fracture has begun, at least in Solis’ case,” he said. “Very probably, others will follow suit.”
The president did not release any statements about the resignation, and the government does not speak to any media it does not control.
Mr. Solis said the time for a peaceful end to the crisis is running short. The Organization of American States voted Friday to invoke a section of its charter that could lead it to take measures to restore democracy to Nicaragua. Congress passed economic sanctions last month.
“A big economic crisis is coming that is going to give rise to even bigger upheaval and more violence,” Mr. Solis said. “Right now there is an appearance of calm, but it’s a forced calm,” because the police instilled terror.
He added: “The country is not doing well. What is coming is worse.”