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May Heads to Brussels Again, Seeks Brexit Movement

British Prime Minister Theresa May makes another trip to Brussels on Wednesday, hoping European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker may prove more yielding than of late to salvage her Brexit deal.

With Britain set to jolt out of the world’s biggest trading bloc in 37 days unless May can either persuade the British parliament or the European Union to budge, officials were cautious on the chances of a breakthrough.

The key sticking point is the so-called backstop, an insurance policy to prevent the return of extensive checks on the sensitive border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

May agreed on the protocol with EU leaders in November but then saw it roundly rejected last month by U.K. lawmakers who said the government’s legal advice that it could tie Britain to EU rules indefinitely made the backstop unacceptable.

She has promised parliament to rework the treaty to try to put a time limit on the protocol or give Britain some other way of getting out of an arrangement which her critics say would leave the country “trapped” by the EU.

A spokesman for May called the Brussels trip “significant” as part of a process of engagement to try to agree on the changes her government says parliament needs to pass the deal.

But an aide for Juncker quoted the Commission president as saying on Tuesday evening: “I have great respect for Theresa May for her courage and her assertiveness. We will have friendly talk tomorrow but I don’t expect a breakthrough.”

EU sources aired frustration with Britain’s stance on Brexit, saying Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay brought no new proposals to the table when he was last in Brussels on Monday for talks with the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

On Tuesday, the EU responded to U.K. demands again: “The EU 27 will not reopen the withdrawal agreement; we cannot accept a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit clause,” said Margaritis Schinas, a spokesman for Juncker. “We are listening and working with the UK government … for an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU on March 29.”

May’s spokesman again said it was the prime minister’s intention to persuade the EU to reopen the divorce deal.

“There is a process of engagement going on. Tomorrow is obviously a significant meeting between the prime minister and President Juncker as part of that process,” he said.

Legal advice

Barclay and Britain’s Attorney General Geoffrey Cox are also due back in Brussels midweek and want to discuss “legal text” with Barnier that would give Britain enough assurances over the backstop, British sources said.

It is Cox’s advice that the backstop as it stands is indefinite, which May is  trying to see changed by obtaining new legally binding EU commitments.

May needs to convince eurosceptics in her Conservative Party that the backstop will not keep Britain indefinitely tied to the EU, but also that she is still considering a compromise idea agreed between Brexit supporters and pro-EU lawmakers.

May’s spokesman said the Commission had engaged with the ideas put forward in the so-called “Malthouse Compromise” but raised concerns about “their viability to resolve the backstop.”

The EU says the alternative technological arrangements it proposes to replace the backstop do not exist for now and so cannot be a guarantee that no border controls would return to Ireland.

Barnier told Barclay the EU could hence not agree to this proposal as it would mean not applying the bloc’s law on its own border.

Eurosceptic lawmakers said Malthouse was “alive and kicking” after meeting May on Tuesday.

May has until Feb. 27 to secure EU concessions on the backstop or face another series of Brexit votes in the House of Commons, where lawmakers want changes to the withdrawal deal.

EU and U.K. sources said London could accept other guarantees on the backstop and the bloc is proposing turning the assurances and clarifications it has already given Britain on the issue in December and January into legally binding documents.

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May Heads to Brussels Again, Seeks Brexit Movement

British Prime Minister Theresa May makes another trip to Brussels on Wednesday, hoping European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker may prove more yielding than of late to salvage her Brexit deal.

With Britain set to jolt out of the world’s biggest trading bloc in 37 days unless May can either persuade the British parliament or the European Union to budge, officials were cautious on the chances of a breakthrough.

The key sticking point is the so-called backstop, an insurance policy to prevent the return of extensive checks on the sensitive border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

May agreed on the protocol with EU leaders in November but then saw it roundly rejected last month by U.K. lawmakers who said the government’s legal advice that it could tie Britain to EU rules indefinitely made the backstop unacceptable.

She has promised parliament to rework the treaty to try to put a time limit on the protocol or give Britain some other way of getting out of an arrangement which her critics say would leave the country “trapped” by the EU.

A spokesman for May called the Brussels trip “significant” as part of a process of engagement to try to agree on the changes her government says parliament needs to pass the deal.

But an aide for Juncker quoted the Commission president as saying on Tuesday evening: “I have great respect for Theresa May for her courage and her assertiveness. We will have friendly talk tomorrow but I don’t expect a breakthrough.”

EU sources aired frustration with Britain’s stance on Brexit, saying Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay brought no new proposals to the table when he was last in Brussels on Monday for talks with the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

On Tuesday, the EU responded to U.K. demands again: “The EU 27 will not reopen the withdrawal agreement; we cannot accept a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit clause,” said Margaritis Schinas, a spokesman for Juncker. “We are listening and working with the UK government … for an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU on March 29.”

May’s spokesman again said it was the prime minister’s intention to persuade the EU to reopen the divorce deal.

“There is a process of engagement going on. Tomorrow is obviously a significant meeting between the prime minister and President Juncker as part of that process,” he said.

Legal advice

Barclay and Britain’s Attorney General Geoffrey Cox are also due back in Brussels midweek and want to discuss “legal text” with Barnier that would give Britain enough assurances over the backstop, British sources said.

It is Cox’s advice that the backstop as it stands is indefinite, which May is  trying to see changed by obtaining new legally binding EU commitments.

May needs to convince eurosceptics in her Conservative Party that the backstop will not keep Britain indefinitely tied to the EU, but also that she is still considering a compromise idea agreed between Brexit supporters and pro-EU lawmakers.

May’s spokesman said the Commission had engaged with the ideas put forward in the so-called “Malthouse Compromise” but raised concerns about “their viability to resolve the backstop.”

The EU says the alternative technological arrangements it proposes to replace the backstop do not exist for now and so cannot be a guarantee that no border controls would return to Ireland.

Barnier told Barclay the EU could hence not agree to this proposal as it would mean not applying the bloc’s law on its own border.

Eurosceptic lawmakers said Malthouse was “alive and kicking” after meeting May on Tuesday.

May has until Feb. 27 to secure EU concessions on the backstop or face another series of Brexit votes in the House of Commons, where lawmakers want changes to the withdrawal deal.

EU and U.K. sources said London could accept other guarantees on the backstop and the bloc is proposing turning the assurances and clarifications it has already given Britain on the issue in December and January into legally binding documents.

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EU to Take Action Against Poland if Judges Harassed for Consulting ECJ

The European Commission will take action against Poland if its government is harassing judges for consulting the European Court of Justice on the legality of Polish reforms, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said Tuesday.

Timmermans, responsible in the Commission for making sure European Union countries observe the rule of law, was responding to a letter from Poland’s biggest judge association Iustitia, which asked him to act.

Iustitia urged Timmermans to sue the euroskeptic Polish government over the harassment of judges who question the legality of the government’s judicial reforms by asking the opinion of the ECJ.

“Every Polish judge is also a European judge, so no one should interfere with the right of a judge to pose questions to the European Court of Justice,” Timmermans told reporters on entering a meeting of EU ministers who were to discuss Poland’s observance of the rule of law.

“If that is becoming something of a structural matter, if judges are being faced with disciplinary measures because they ask questions to the court in Luxembourg, then of course the Commission will have to act,” he said, without elaborating.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has been in conflict with the Commission over its handling of Polish courts since the start of 2016. Most EU countries back the Commission.

“The combined effect of the legislative changes could put at risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in Poland,” German Minister for Europe Michael Roth and French Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau said in a joint statement at a ministerial meeting with Timmermans.

“In this context, the amendments made so far by the Polish authorities are not sufficient,” they said, according to delegation officials.

Procedure

Worried about the government flouting basic democratic standards in the country of 38 million people, the Commission has launched an unprecedented procedure on whether Poland is observing the rule of law, which serves mainly as a means of political pressure.

The procedure could lead to the loss of voting power in the EU for a government that does not observe the rule of law.

“Sadly, not much has changed and some things even have worsened,” Timmermans said.

The EU has launched a similar procedure against Hungary, where the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban is raising concern in other EU countries. Brussels has also warned Romania to stop its push for influence over the judicial system.

Iustitia, grouping one-third of all Polish judges, wrote to Timmermans to act against repressive disciplinary steps against judges by the National Council of Judiciary, which, under changes made by the government, is now appointed by politicians from the ruling PiS parliamentary majority.

“The proceedings are usually initiated against judges who are active in the field of defending the rule of law, among others by educational actions, meetings with citizens, international activity,” Iustitia head Krystian Markiewicz wrote in the letter to Timmermans, seen by Reuters. “Therefore I appeal for referring Poland to the Court of Justice of the European Union in connection with the regulations concerning the disciplinary proceedings against judges.”

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EU to Take Action Against Poland if Judges Harassed for Consulting ECJ

The European Commission will take action against Poland if its government is harassing judges for consulting the European Court of Justice on the legality of Polish reforms, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said Tuesday.

Timmermans, responsible in the Commission for making sure European Union countries observe the rule of law, was responding to a letter from Poland’s biggest judge association Iustitia, which asked him to act.

Iustitia urged Timmermans to sue the euroskeptic Polish government over the harassment of judges who question the legality of the government’s judicial reforms by asking the opinion of the ECJ.

“Every Polish judge is also a European judge, so no one should interfere with the right of a judge to pose questions to the European Court of Justice,” Timmermans told reporters on entering a meeting of EU ministers who were to discuss Poland’s observance of the rule of law.

“If that is becoming something of a structural matter, if judges are being faced with disciplinary measures because they ask questions to the court in Luxembourg, then of course the Commission will have to act,” he said, without elaborating.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has been in conflict with the Commission over its handling of Polish courts since the start of 2016. Most EU countries back the Commission.

“The combined effect of the legislative changes could put at risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in Poland,” German Minister for Europe Michael Roth and French Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau said in a joint statement at a ministerial meeting with Timmermans.

“In this context, the amendments made so far by the Polish authorities are not sufficient,” they said, according to delegation officials.

Procedure

Worried about the government flouting basic democratic standards in the country of 38 million people, the Commission has launched an unprecedented procedure on whether Poland is observing the rule of law, which serves mainly as a means of political pressure.

The procedure could lead to the loss of voting power in the EU for a government that does not observe the rule of law.

“Sadly, not much has changed and some things even have worsened,” Timmermans said.

The EU has launched a similar procedure against Hungary, where the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban is raising concern in other EU countries. Brussels has also warned Romania to stop its push for influence over the judicial system.

Iustitia, grouping one-third of all Polish judges, wrote to Timmermans to act against repressive disciplinary steps against judges by the National Council of Judiciary, which, under changes made by the government, is now appointed by politicians from the ruling PiS parliamentary majority.

“The proceedings are usually initiated against judges who are active in the field of defending the rule of law, among others by educational actions, meetings with citizens, international activity,” Iustitia head Krystian Markiewicz wrote in the letter to Timmermans, seen by Reuters. “Therefore I appeal for referring Poland to the Court of Justice of the European Union in connection with the regulations concerning the disciplinary proceedings against judges.”

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Environmentalists Seek Tougher EU Curbs on Balkan Coal Power Plants

Environmentalists urged EU policymakers on Tuesday to take a tougher stance on air pollution from coal power plants in the Western Balkans, blaming the fumes for 3,900 deaths across Europe each year.

The 16 Communist-era plants with 8 gigawatts (GW) capacity emitted the same amount of sulphur dioxide in 2016 as 250 coal-fired plants with 30 times more capacity in the rest of the European Union, five environmentalist groups said in a report.

Lignite, the most polluting coal, is widely available in the region, providing a cheap energy resource and the major source of energy for Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro.

The countries are members of the Energy Community, which had a commitment to implement EU rules to curb pollution by 2018.

But investments in new power plants or technology to cut emissions have largely been delayed, the report said.

“Air pollution knows no borders and is still an invisible killer in Europe,” said Vlatka Matkovic Puljic, senior health and energy officer at HEAL and the report’s lead author.

“It is high time that EU policymakers step up efforts to clean up the air and decarbonize the power sector,” she said.

The report said the West Balkan power plants caused pollution across the EU and beyond that caused health care costs of up to 11.5 billion euros ($13.02 billion) a year.

The region plans to add 2.7 GW of new coal plant capacity in the next decade, mainly financed by Chinese banks, the report said, adding that most plants would not meet the EU’s pollution control rules.

Governments in the region say they need to expand coal power generation to meet rising demand and ensure energy security and say that new coal plants would emit less greenhouse gases.

The report called for stricter rules to be imposed on the Energy Community and said the European Commission should make meeting those regulations a requirement for joining the EU.

For now, the countries in the Energy Community do not face any penalties if targets are not met.

“Rather than investing in yet more outdated coal power plants, Western Balkan leaders need to … increase the share of sustainable forms of renewable energy,” said Ioana Ciuta, Energy Coordinator at CEE Bankwatch, one of the five groups behind the report.

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Environmentalists Seek Tougher EU Curbs on Balkan Coal Power Plants

Environmentalists urged EU policymakers on Tuesday to take a tougher stance on air pollution from coal power plants in the Western Balkans, blaming the fumes for 3,900 deaths across Europe each year.

The 16 Communist-era plants with 8 gigawatts (GW) capacity emitted the same amount of sulphur dioxide in 2016 as 250 coal-fired plants with 30 times more capacity in the rest of the European Union, five environmentalist groups said in a report.

Lignite, the most polluting coal, is widely available in the region, providing a cheap energy resource and the major source of energy for Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro.

The countries are members of the Energy Community, which had a commitment to implement EU rules to curb pollution by 2018.

But investments in new power plants or technology to cut emissions have largely been delayed, the report said.

“Air pollution knows no borders and is still an invisible killer in Europe,” said Vlatka Matkovic Puljic, senior health and energy officer at HEAL and the report’s lead author.

“It is high time that EU policymakers step up efforts to clean up the air and decarbonize the power sector,” she said.

The report said the West Balkan power plants caused pollution across the EU and beyond that caused health care costs of up to 11.5 billion euros ($13.02 billion) a year.

The region plans to add 2.7 GW of new coal plant capacity in the next decade, mainly financed by Chinese banks, the report said, adding that most plants would not meet the EU’s pollution control rules.

Governments in the region say they need to expand coal power generation to meet rising demand and ensure energy security and say that new coal plants would emit less greenhouse gases.

The report called for stricter rules to be imposed on the Energy Community and said the European Commission should make meeting those regulations a requirement for joining the EU.

For now, the countries in the Energy Community do not face any penalties if targets are not met.

“Rather than investing in yet more outdated coal power plants, Western Balkan leaders need to … increase the share of sustainable forms of renewable energy,” said Ioana Ciuta, Energy Coordinator at CEE Bankwatch, one of the five groups behind the report.

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Britain Debates Whether Islamic State Recruits Should Be Given Second Chance

British-born Sumaiyyah Wakil was sixteen-years-old when she sneaked away to war-torn Syria, flying first to Bulgaria, then Turkey, to join the Islamic State terror group. Once in IS’s de facto capital Raqqa, she bragged, according to British court documents, about watching the public stoning of a woman, describing the killing as “so cool.”

But now her family say the British authorities should repatriate her when she re-emerges, likely soon, from IS territory as well as other British teenagers who joined the militants. Wakil’s parents and the families of IS recruits argue their offspring were manipulated by jihadist recruiters and were too young to know what they were doing when they went off to Syria.

The predicament of surviving young foreign IS recruits — especially of the women, most of whom left like Wakil as schoolgirls without family approval or prior parental knowledge — has sparked a ferocious moral, political and legal debate in Britain, as well as other European states, about whether they should be re-admitted to their birth countries, even helped to return and given a second chance. 

Opinion polls suggest most Britons don’t think they deserve the right to return. 

In Britain, the debate was triggered in earnest last week with the discovery by reporter Anthony Loyd of a pregnant nineteen-year-old British woman in a Kurdish-managed refugee camp in northeast Syria. Shamima Begum, who gave birth to her third child Sunday, joined the militant group in 2015 at the age of 15, slipping off with two school-friends, all from east London. 

One of the girls died in an airstrike in 2016; the other, Amira Abase, is still in IS territory. At least 900 Britons, an estimated 145 of them women and 50 minors, joined IS. In total an estimated 5000 Europeans joined the militant group, although some analysts say the figure is likely higher. 

Britain, like other European countries, has been reluctant to repatriate IS recruits, whether male fighters or so-called ‘jihadi brides’ as well as their children. A small number have been assisted to return to their countries of origin, but hundreds are awaiting political or legal resolution of their cases as their appeals for repatriation have largely been ignored by alarmed European governments, seeing them as security risks who betrayed their countries.

U.S. officials have been urging European governments, for more than a year,to take back surviving recruits — and prosecute them. Otherwise they will slip away, they say, from refugee and detention facilities in northeast Syria and pose a greater threat once unsupervised. On Saturday, a frustrated President Donald Trump urged the Europeans to take charge of their rogue citizens, saying the alternative is the Kurds will have to free them.

European officials say most can’t be put on trial because of the difficulty in collecting hard evidence against them for individual wrongdoing, and they worry their presence will over-tax already strained security services. More than 900 foreign jihadists and 3200 wives and children are being held by the Kurds.

Begum, whose two previous children died from malnutrition and sickness, says she wants to return to Britain, mainly because she’s worried about her baby’s health. “I think a lot of people should have, like, sympathy towards me for everything I’ve been through,” she said in a recent interview. 

But she has expressed no remorse over joining IS nor disavowed the group’s ideology.In an interview with Sky News she claimed she was “just a housewife” during her time in IS’s self-styled caliphate, where she married a young Dutch jihadist shortly after arriving. 

And asked whether she was aware of the IS beheadings and executions, she answered matter-of-factly that she’d been “okay with it.” She said: “Yeah, I knew about those things and I was okay with it. Because, you know, I started becoming religious just before I left. From what I heard, Islamically that is all allowed.” In an interview with the BBC she said the 2017 terror attack on the Ariana Grande concert, in which 22 died, was justified retaliation.

Her lack of contrition has prompted public outrage with detractors saying she displays a breathtaking sense of entitlement. Her family, though, says she is brainwashed. 

Muhammad Rahman, her brother-in-law, whose married to an older sister, told reporters: “I can understand why many people in Britain do not want Shamima to be allowed back into the country after what she has done…but she went as a fifteen-year-old and I don’t know a 15-year-old can make such a decision with any responsibility. She was a minor when she left and she surely has been brainwashed.” 

Some radicalization experts have long argued that young Westerners were cleverly groomed by recruiters, in much the same way pedophiles target prey with tailored, manipulative narratives to up a false sense of kinship. In conversations with this correspondent, Mia Bloom, a security studies professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and recognized radicalization expert, highlighted, as the caliphate unfolded, how IS groomers were skillful at exploiting the vulnerabilities and confusion of disoriented Western teenagers already struggling with identity issues.

Bloom said IS matched recruiters with potential recruits in terms of age, nationality and gender. The marketing narratives would shift depending on the target’s vulnerabilities — from arguments about equality and inclusion to offers of friendship and the promise of belonging. For some, there’d be the lure of utopian adventure. Others would be manipulated by recruiters emphasizing their obligations to Islam. 

Manipulated or not, commentator Janice Turner, a columnist with The Times, says while the youth of some of the IS recruits should be taken into account, she questions, “at what point does a young person stop being a gullible victim, malleable clay moulded by older minds and dangerous ideology, and become responsible for his or her deeds?”

In Begum’s east London neighborhood of Bethnal Green there are mixed feelings, with some locals saying she might have been manipulated into going, but her lack of remorse now is alarming and suggests she remains a radicalized menace. The plight of the children of IS recruits is what pulls at most heart strings and even those adamant that the recruits should stay away, say the children can’t be left to their fates.

On the legal front, there have been calls for treason laws to be applied against IS recruits, including jihadi brides, but those laws may not be appropriate, say legal scholars. The country’s interior minister, Sajid Javid, reflected British anger last week by saying Begum and other recruits shouldn’t be readmitted, but he has had to concede he can’t block them permanently from re-entry. He could issue temporary orders excluding them from re-admission for up to two years, say some legal scholars, but would face court challenges.

Other ministers have also acknowledged their alarm, but say they can’t make people stateless, although they’re unlikely to arrange physically the return of the recruits. Returnees would be monitored, would have to enter de-radicalization programs and their children most likely would be placed in care of or with foster families, at least temporarily, say British officials. 

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Pressure Grows on Europe to Back Venezuelan Opposition Leader

Pressure is growing on the European Union to formally back Venezuela’s opposition, after three EU lawmakers were refused entry to the country — accused of having conspiratorial aims.’ The diplomatic snub has triggered calls for Brussels to take a stronger stand against the government of disputed President Nicholas Maduro. The U.S. and many allies have recognized the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as president, after accusations of vote rigging in last year’s election. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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European Leaders Struggle with Growing Anti-Semitism

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the resurgence of anti-Semitism is a central problem for Jewish communities. Netanyahu spoke Monday, a day before the planned summit with leaders of central European countries in Jerusalem. The planned summit of four nations known as the Visegrad Group — Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — was supposed to take place Tuesday. But Poland withdrew from the meeting. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Pope Francis Lifts Suspension on Nicaraguan Priest, Poet

Pope Francis has lifted the suspension imposed in 1983 on Nicaraguan priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal, the Vatican’s ambassador to Nicaragua said in a statement Monday.

Nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag said in a statement that Francis removed the canonical censures following a request from the 94-year-old Cardenal, who has been hospitalized for more than a week.

Pope John Paul II suspended Cardenal from his priestly duties because he had become culture minister in the leftist Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega after the rebels toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza.

John Paul II said that priests could not assume political posts and he was irked by a movement of pro-revolutionary priests such as Cardenal accused of ignoring instructions from the more conservative hierarchy and of mixing leftist ideology into theology.

John Paul II famously criticized Cardenal publicly at Managua’s international airport during a visit in 1983. In a widely circulated photograph, Cardenal knelt and reached to kiss the pope’s hand, but John Paul pulled his hand back and pointed his finger at Cardenal.

“Father Cardenal has been suspended from exercising the ministry for 35 years due to his political militancy,” the nuncio’s statement said. “The priest accepted the canonical punishment that was imposed on him and followed it without performing any pastoral activity. Furthermore, he had abandoned many years ago all political commitments.”

Cardenal’s personal assistant Luz Marina Acosta said he was in delicate, but stable condition in a local hospital, where Sommertag joined him in celebrating Mass on Sunday.

 “It was very moving and the father was very happy,” she said.

Cardenal, like many priests in Latin America in the 1960s, felt the pull of the leftist liberation theology that focused on ministering to the poor and liberating the oppressed.

Years after the revolution, however, he was among several Sandinista leaders who distanced themselves from Ortega.

He was easily identifiable in his signature black beret and loose white peasant shirts.

Among Cardenal’s works are “Epigrams” and “Zero Hour.” He has been nominated four times for the Nobel Prize in Literature since 2005.

The same suspension was imposed on Cardenal’s brother Fernando, who served as the Sandinista education minister and Miguel D’Escoto who was that government’s foreign minister. However, those priests had their suspensions lifted years ago.