OTTAWA - The federal government is suspending all direct aid to Nicaragua, citing what it calls "the deteriorating human rights situation" in the Central American nation under President Daniel Ortega.

Ortega's government has cracked down violently on protests that began last April as demonstrations against cuts to the country's retirement system, but quickly turned to calls for the president to step down.

The opposition has said more than 640 people were being held for political causes, although the government says the actual numbers are far smaller and it has released many prisoners in recent months.

In an email to The Canadian Press on Sunday, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada confirms the government made the decision last summer.

Brittany Fletcher says Ottawa will continue to support projects led by non-governmental organizations, with a focus on helping vulnerable groups.