Press Release

The Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) Completes Third Week in Action, Observes Tougher Repression and Raids by Police and Parapolice Groups

July 19, 2018

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Washington, D.C. / Managua - Three months into the violent events that have been ongoing in Nicaragua since April 18, 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) observes an increase in repression in the Central American country. In its third week of work on the ground, the Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI, by its Spanish acronym) saw evidence of tougher repression and raids carried out around the country by National Police officers and parapolice groups, with the aim of dismantling the tranques (road blocks) in various towns and cities.

This week, according to the data collected on site by the MESENI, 11 people were killed and around 100 were injured, which raised to 277 the total death toll since the protests started on April 18, 2018, with over 2,000 injured.

The MESENI found and documented raids and acts of repression against civilians in various towns and cities it was in contact with to broker a spontaneous and peaceful dissolution of tranques. These include Diriá and Diriomo, in Granada; Niquinohomo, Catarina, La Concepción and Monimbó, in Masaya; and Lóvago, in Chontales. The IACHR is sorry that the Nicaraguan State resorted to violence instead of further pursuing dialogue in the search for a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis, and it condemns such actions.

On July 9, a group of priests was attacked by at least 100 people, who insulted, threatened and hit them inside San Sebastián’s Basilica in Diriamba. Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio José Báez Ortega, a beneficiary of precautionary measures, was among the injured. Two journalists who were at the site were also beaten up and had equipment stolen. In a joint press release, the IACHR and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned those events. They warned of the stigmatization of members of the Roman Catholic Church for the institution’s efforts to protect the physical integrity of protesters and for its fundamental role in mediation in the context of the National Dialogue.

On July 12, there was reportedly a clash between the National Police and demonstrators in Morrito, in the Río San Juan department. The State reported that the clash left five people dead (four police officers and a teacher). The MESENI further documented the July 13 attack on students and demonstrators who had sought refuge on UNAN premises. According to the available information, at approximately 3 pm, officers of the National Police and parapolice groups launched attacks against the barricades around the university, in order to break into its facilities. Given the intensity of such attacks and the disproportionate use of force—including lethal force—young protesters left the barricades and tranques to seek shelter inside university facilities. Minutes later, those facilities were occupied by State forces, so protesters—including some who were injured—fled to the adjacent Church of Divine Mercy.

The IACHR’s MESENI accompanied the Verification and Security Commission and saw that attacks by State forces against the Church of Divine Mercy lasted into the night and the early hours of July 13. There were injured people at the site, alongside young protesters, priests and three journalists who worked for national and international media. The MESENI further witnessed the State’s refusal to grant the Nicaraguan Red Cross, accompanied by the Verification and Security Commission and by the IACHR, access to those facilities, in order to assist and transfer the injured and to protect the lives and the personal integrity of the people who had sought refuge there. The State hindered such efforts, and only granted them access several hours later. After more than 20 hours, the people injured and sheltered inside the Church of Divine Mercy could finally be evacuated to the Cathedral in Managua, with the mediation of the Apostolic Nuncio, the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference and the Verification and Security Commission. The attack is believed to have left two people dead and at least 16 injured. The MESENI collected information about students’ fears of being followed and arrested when they left the Cathedral in Managua.

On the morning of July 15, other armed raids were launched in the municipalities of Diriá, Diriomo, Catarina, Niquinohomo and Masaya, in this so-called “clean-up operation.” According to the available information, at least 10 people were killed in those raids. In a press release issued on July 15, the National Police reported that one of its officers has been killed in Masaya. On July 17, the MESENI documented another raid in Monimbó, Masaya, carried out over more than seven hours by officers of the National Police, with the aim of dismantling tranques in the city.

It is worth noting that, in the context of tougher “clean-up” raids, the MESENI and the staff of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the ground observed a high degree of support and collaboration between National Police forces and masked parapolice groups, who coordinate their actions to perpetrate violence, repress, harass and persecute civilians as well as to remove tranques. The MESENI could also verify that both police officers and members of parapolice groups detained scores of people who were later taken to National Police detention centers.

Given the tougher, armed clean-up actions against tranques in the context of the so-called “operation for peace,” the Commission reminds the Nicaraguan State of its obligation to protect the lives, personal integrity and safety of all demonstrators and of all people who are exercising their rights and public liberties and suffering the consequences of the current repressive atmosphere. Nicaragua must also dismantle parapolice groups and take measures to prevent the operations of armed third parties who attack and harass civilians with the support and acquiescence of the State. To do that, it must investigate the events they have been involved in, and also identify and punish those responsible for the actions of such groups, who manage their operations from within State structures.

The IACHR notes that, in any context of repression, the State must guarantee medical assistance and evacuation for the injured. The Commission stresses its call on the State to issue a list of all the people killed or injured in raids around the country. The IACHR further insists in its recommendation for a public register to be drawn up and publicized, with the following information: (a) number of people who have been detained since the protests started, on April 18; (b) causes of detention; (c) duration of their deprivation of liberty; (d) place of detention; (e) number of people who are currently detained in connection with the protests that started on April 18; and (f) number of people who have since been released. Such information must include details regarding the gender, age and occupation of detainees.

On July 9-16, the IACHR received 15 State reports denouncing more than 40 kidnappings, 9 cases of torture allegations, 3 cases of arson, 13 murders and 31 people with gunshot wounds. Some of those State reports say that people who live near tranques have been subjected to intimidation and threats so they would support those protests. The IACHR condemns attacks on anyone’s life and physical integrity, without distinction, and notes that all such actions must be properly investigated and punished, in legal proceedings that offer proper guarantees and comply with the applicable human rights standards. The State reported that such actions were perpetrated by “armed criminal groups,” also described as “terrorists.” The Nicaraguan State reported that, together, over an unspecified period of time, violent events at the university UNAN-Managua, in Jinotepe and in Diriamba caused damage to public property held by 16 institutions, in lootings, fires and other forms of destruction; 14 government vehicles were stolen or destroyed; 8 private homes were looted; 6 institutions were illegally occupied; and hundreds of Central American truck drivers suffered damage to the loads they were transporting internationally. In this context, given the “clean-up operations” the State has been carrying out, the IACHR stresses the obligation of Nicaraguan authorities to guarantee safety and preserve the rule of law through their security officers.

Commissioner Antonia Urrejola, the IACHR’s Rapporteur for Nicaragua, warned that “repression and arbitrary detentions must cease immediately, along with all attacks against demonstrators and opposition activists.” “It is unacceptable for the number of dead and injured to increase by the day and for young people to be the worst-affected group. The State must, first and foremost, protect and guarantee the rights of all people to life and personal integrity,” said Commissioner Urrejola.

The MESENI notes the existence of a pattern of repression marked by arbitrary detentions, persecution by the courts and criminalization of activists who oppose the government, demonstrators, students and human rights defenders. During its third week in action, the MESENI observed an accusing discourse exacerbated by State authorities. For example, on July 13, the State reported in an official press release the arrest of Medardo Mairena Sequeira—a member of the peasant movement and also of the Verification and Security Commission established in the National Dialogue—as “the direct mastermind of the massacre and the murders of four comrade police officers and a primary school teacher” in Morrito, in the department of Río San Juan.

The IACHR expresses its profound concern over the circumstances that surrounded the arrests of Medardo Mairena Sequeira and his companion Eduardo Mena. The MESENI has been informed that Medardo Mairena and Eduardo Mena have had no access to a lawyer nor contact with their families. Further, the MESENI has received worrying reports about a campaign involving persecution by the courts against other members of the peasant movement and their families. Medardo Mairena’s arrest on charges including murder, terrorism, organized crime and kidnapping, and the failure to grant public access to the first court hearing in this case, show—like other similar cases involving detainees—a violation of the human rights of human rights defenders and social leaders. In this context, the MESENI team was not allowed to visit the detention center that is active in the police unit El Chipote in Managua nor to access the facilities of the Managua Court Complex to watch the hearing where charges against the peasant activist were set to be read out.

Labels like “terrorists” and “criminals” not only seek to delegitimize the work of defenders, journalists and social leaders and to create an unfavorable atmosphere for the defense of human rights. They are also the prelude for the start of criminal proceedings and other court actions against them. The IACHR has stressed that public officials need to refrain from comments that stigmatize defenders or suggest that certain organizations are acting in an inappropriate or illegal way just because they promote human rights and stand up for the defense of those rights. The IACHR believes that comments to stigmatize defenders may violate both their rights to personal integrity and to honor and dignity, and the principle of presumption of innocence. In particular, the Commission considers that comments made by representatives of the State in contexts of political violence, strong polarization or a high level of social conflict send the message that acts of violence aimed at silencing human rights defenders and their organizations have the acquiescence or the support of the government. The IACHR has recommended that governments give precise instructions to their officials, requiring that they refrain from stigmatizing statements.

Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren, the IACHR’s Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, said that “it is crucially important for State authorities, from their highest echelons, to publicly acknowledge the promotion and defense of human rights as a legitimate action and the fact that, by engaging in such actions, defenders do not act against State institutions but, on the contrary, contribute to strengthening the rule of law and to expanding rights and guarantees for all people.”

A video that was circulated this week on social media, under the title “El fascism ordinario presente en Nicaragua” (which can be translated literally as “Ordinary fascism present in Nicaragua”), says that “the failed coup d’état was staged by the Roman Catholic Church, the media, civil society and corrupt politicians.” The video shows footage of several journalists who are said to be “responsible” for those events and for waging “a media war” and producing “fake news.” The documentary says things like the following: “The Bishops’ Conference, mercilessly seeking to destabilize the country, hides criminals inside churches;” “The media war crushes the people with the infamous fake news, and traditional media, social media and TV channels break the law;” “Members of civil society corrupt their role by joining the fascist coup d’état against the people of Nicaragua” (sic).

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression observe this situation with great concern and stress that “the reporters and camerapersons who are doing their job in the context of a public demonstration [...] must not be disturbed, detained or transferred or suffer any other restriction to their rights based on the exercise of their profession. The tools they use to do their work must not be confiscated. On the contrary, any actions aimed at obstructing their work must be prevented, without endangering the rights of third parties.”

Principle 9 of the IACHR’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression says that “[t]he murder, kidnapping, intimidation of and/or threats to social communicators, as well as the material destruction of communications media violate the fundamental rights of individuals and strongly restrict freedom of expression. It is the duty of the State to prevent and investigate such occurrences, to punish their perpetrators and to ensure that victims receive due compensation.”

The IACHR stresses its rejection of any form of intimidating expression or discourse by high officials or editorial or reporting lines by public, State-run media against citizens, leaders, human rights defenders and journalists, as a way to discourage the exercise of their right to demonstrate, or to stigmatize or delegitimize them. The Commission further highlights the State’s obligation to protect journalists and to prevent attacks against them when, in a context of social protests, they are at risk. 

The IACHR has stressed that social protest is a fundamental tool for the defense of human rights. The Commission has said that “it is, in principle, inadmissible to punish demonstrations in public places as such, when they are held in the framework of the rights to freedom of expression and of assembly.” The IACHR has also noted that “the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly through social protest must not be subjected to a permit from the authorities or to excessive requirements” that prevent it from happening.

On a different note, in compliance with its mandate, the IACHR formally notified the Nicaraguan State of its interest to visit the Modelo prison and the maximum-security wing 300 Alcaide Evenor Centeno, to tour their facilities and interview persons who are deprived of their liberty there. The Nicaraguan State granted the technical team permission to visit Modelo facilities on July 16 and to interview five detainees, including two assistants of the Permanent Human Rights Commission (CPDH, by its Spanish acronym) arrested in the Rivas department. On this occasion, the authorities of Nicaragua’s prison system did not allow the IACHR to visit maximum-security facilities, because that would put the MESENI team at risk. Based on the interviews it conducted, the MESENI observed with concern that detainees held in maximum-security facilities have no access to their lawyers nor contact with their families. Further, those inmates were treated differently, compared to other detainees in the same maximum-security wing: they were not given food as regularly as everyone else, the windows looking out of their cells had been sealed and they were not provided with mats and blankets. The MESENI was told that conditions of detention had improved one day before the visit. In that sense, Commissioner Joel Hernández, the IACHR’s Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty, highlighted “the importance of granting a dignified treatment to persons who are in State custody. In particular, [it is important to] ensure their right to legal counsel from the moment of their arrest and immediately notify their families of where they are being held, as well as of the reasons for their arrest.” The IACHR hopes to be able to continue to rely on the disposition of the State of Nicaragua, so the MESENI can keep checking detainees’ personal integrity and the guarantees for their access to justice, without restrictions, in accordance with Nicaragua’s international human rights obligations.

Interviewees also told the MESENI that they had been arrested for their activities as CPDH assistants. The IACHR has received reports of charges based on false accusations, delays in appearances before court, and incorrect or inaccurate data regarding the place and date of arrest, among others. Although the MESENI was not granted access to legal records during this visit, it is particularly worrying—based on the testimonies the team heard—that interviewees are being held in a maximum-security wing for the work they did in connection with the defense of human rights. In this context, the Commission urges the Nicaraguan State to end arbitrary detentions and stresses Nicaragua’s obligation to grant due process to detainees, in accordance with the country’s international obligations concerning human rights. Further, the State must take any measures necessary to prevent investigations from leading to unfair or baseless trials against human rights defenders who legitimately demand respect and protection for human rights.

In the context of its role to build civil society capacities, the MESENI trained 25 people on July 13, at a workshop on the standards of the Inter-American Human Rights System. It further distributed information about the System’s mechanisms on July 14, at an event that involved civil society and part of the technical staff of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI, by its Spanish acronym) for Nicaragua as well as close to 30 victims of human rights violations in the country and their families. The MESENI will continue to develop training sessions on the standards of the Inter-American Human Rights System.

IACHR Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão stressed that “it is crucially important to relaunch the National Dialogue in the country, with the aim of finding a peaceful solution to this human rights crisis.” In that context, he highlighted the importance of making sure that “any action aimed at demobilization is previously cleared with the Verification and Security Commission, based on a concerted, transparent plan that protects the physical integrity of all persons, without retaliation.” “The IACHR, through the MESENI, will continue to act in accordance with its mandate to protect, monitor and promote [human rights] and to assist the Verification and Security Commission,” Abrão said.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence. 

No. 156/18