Nicaraguan opposition protesters take part in a march called "Masaya florecera" (Masaya will flourish) in Managua on July 21, 2018
Managua (AFP) - Hundreds of protesters marched in Nicaragua's capital Saturday in defiance of an iron-fisted crackdown on dissent by President Daniel Ortega that includes a new law threatening them with up to 20 years in prison for "terrorism."
The rally, for which police were absent, passed off peacefully, unlike in previous days and weeks when Ortega's police and paramilitary forces violently attacked student demonstrators in Managua and a nearby opposition stronghold city, Masaya, with live ammunition.
More than 280 people have been killed since April in the unrest shaking the small Central American nation of six million people.
"The people united will never be defeated," yelled the crowd. They reiterated widespread demands that Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, step down.
Many of those taking part hid their faces behind masks.
But they said they were still turning out despite a law passed last Monday that carries prison terms of 15 to 20 years for those found guilty of vaguely defined actions deemed to constitute "terrorism."
"This law doesn't matter to us," one 23-year-old protester who gave her name as Maria told AFP. "Its a risk, but as with every big insurrection there's a risk."
She added: "The protests aren't going to stop. We will continue in the streets demanding freedom."
The legislation bolstered perceptions that Ortega, 72, and his government were acting in increasingly undemocratic ways.
Ortega and Murillo, though, say their government is fighting a "coup" attempt by US-financed "satanic terrorists" and that stern action is required.
Their supporters held a rival rally in Managua on Saturday in which they demanded justice for "victims of terrorism" -- mainly for dozens of police officers killed in the months of bloodshed.
- Protesters will 'pay' -
The United States, the Organization for American States and the European Union have all condemned the violence in Nicaragua and backed calls for dialogue trying to have Ortega agree to early elections to help solve the crisis.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said as he arrived in Argentina for a G20 meeting of finance ministers that more US sanctions could be leveled at Nicaragua.
Two EU nations, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, announced the suspension of millions of dollars in aid projects to Nicaragua because of the rights violations reported there.
But Ortega is showing no signs of ceding power.
On top of sending his forces out to quash protest hubs, he has dismissed Catholic bishops mediating the talks as biased collaborators with the opposition.
Murillo on Friday also signaled no quarter would be given in punishing those challenging the government.
"We can pardon but never forgive these crimes against Nicaragua," she said.
She vowed that arrested "coup-mongers" would face justice.
"They have to pay for the destruction of so many lives."
- Economy in peril -
On Saturday, rights groups evacuated relatives away their makeshift camp outside a notorious Managua jail complex called El Chipote where protesters were locked up, as pro-government heavies turned up to intimidate them.
"Masked armed men came and told us that if we didn't leave they'd kill us," one woman who didn't give her name told AFP.
Many of the relatives were mothers and wives of the detainees. They were taken to Managua's cathedral for shelter.
The unrest in Nicaragua is the biggest challenge to Ortega's authority since he returned to power 11 years ago.
Until this year, Nicaragua was a relative haven of public safety and economic stability in Latin America.
But the protests and crackdown have put an end to that.
Triggered by ill-judged cuts to the cash-strapped social security system, demonstrations quickly grew into widespread protests cutting across society.
For many -- even erstwhile allies and a previously compliant business sector -- Ortega's increasing autocracy and a belief he was grooming Murillo to take over from him were too much, and it was time for him to go.
The opposition says elections originally scheduled for 2021 should be brought forward to next year.
Nicaragua's economy is fragile and dependent on foreign investors and tourism. Instability means it could soon crumble perilously.
"The problem is that the economic crisis will get even worse and he won't be able to govern like that. It is impossible that Ortega will make it to 2021," a sociologist, Oscar Rene Vargas, said.