Press Release

IACHR denounces aggravation of the repression and the closure of democratic spaces in Nicaragua

December 19, 2018

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Washington, D.C. / Managua - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) denounces the closure of democratic spaces and the aggravation of a new stage of repression in Nicaragua aimed at silencing, intimidating and criminalizing those opposed to the Government, human rights organizations and the independent media in the country. The IACHR reminds the State that the full exercise of all fundamental rights and freedoms is an indispensable condition for the effective enforcement of democracy.

Based on its permanent monitoring of the situation in Nicaragua, the IACHR has documented the different stages and the diversification of state repression since April 18. In its report “Serious violations of human rights in the context of social protests in Nicaragua”, the Commission denounced the common patterns of human rights violations that characterized the first stage of the repression of social demonstrations, such as the use of arbitrary force, including lethal force, by police officers and para-police groups to deter protests; denial of medical care and obstruction of humanitarian work to help those injured in the context of acts of violence; arbitrary detentions; violence and attacks against journalists and the media, among others.

Subsequently, in July 2018, the Commission registered those human rights violations committed during a second phase which began in the context of the “cleanup operations” deployed by agents of the National Police and para-police groups to dismantle the barricades and roadblocks throughout the country, which lead to an increase in the total number of deaths recorded since the beginning of the protests on April 18, 2018 (Press Release 156/2018). In August 2018, the Commission warned of the consolidation of a third phase of repression consisting mainly of the persecution and selective and massive criminalization of demonstrators, human rights defenders, students, social leaders and government opponents; serious problems in access to due defense and due process for accused persons; as well as violations of the human rights of persons deprived of liberty and their families (Press Release 187/2018).

According to information received in the field by the Special Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI), after eight months since the protests began the Commission warns of the escalation of a fourth stage of state repression characterized by an increase in acts of aggression and harassment against journalists; the continuation of the detention and prosecution of leaders, human rights defenders and individuals opposed to the Government; and the arbitrary expulsion - or threat of expulsion - of naturalized persons or permanent residents as a result of their participation in protests. In addition, in this phase of state repression, the IACHR observes the adoption of measures and decrees that, under the guise of legality and strict formality, illegitimately restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, essential for the effective functioning of any democratic society.

In relation to the criminalization of demonstrators and social leaders, the Commission continues to receive information about arbitrary detentions characterized by a lack of information regarding the reasons for the arrest or the place where the person will be detained, absence of a court order, and no guarantee of access to an adequate legal defense. Among other cases, the Commission learned of the arrest of peasant leaders Lener Fonseca (beneficiary of precautionary measure MC-1172-18 (available in spanish only)), on November 14, and Freddy Navas, on November 17. These arrests raised the number of leaders from the Peasant Movement to six who are deprived of liberty in retaliation for their participation in the protests.

According to information provided by civil society, in Nicaragua, more than 550 people remain in prison for acts related to the protests, of which at least 90 have received a conviction. Through MESENI, the IACHR has received complaints about alleged violations of the guarantees of due process, such as the obstruction for persons on trial to access their legal representatives prior to their hearings; an alleged practice on the part of public defenders to suggest self-incrimination as a defense strategy; judgments based on hearsay and contradictory testimonies; as well as the granting of maximum and disproportionate sentences against people who participated in the demonstrations that began on April 18 in the country. In this context, the Commission considers it urgent that the State provide detailed information on the situation of persons deprived of their liberty and who have been processed, and that the State grant MESENI access to the prisons and to the public hearings in the courts.

In addition, the Commission has received information regarding the lack of execution of orders of release by prison authorities. Among the cases that have been documented are Guillermo Sobalvarro and Bernard Monroe, who had been acquitted since October 15.Their legal representatives filed appeals for protection and a criminal complaint for contempt, however, to date, the authorities of the National Penitentiary System have not granted them their freedom. In addition, Alex Vanegas, arrested and prosecuted for public scandal, has had a release order since December 5 that has not been abided with by the authorities of the Judicial Assistance Directorate.

In this context, the IACHR recalls that an arbitrary and illegal detention occurs when it is practiced outside the motives and formalities established by law, when it is carried out without observing all of the procedural formalities that must be followed by the judicial and police authorities, and when it is practiced for purposes other than those provided and required by law. Also, a detention with improper purposes, is in itself a form of punishment without extralegal process or punishment that violates the guarantee to a fair trial and encourages the arbitrary term to be considered as a synonym of irregular, abusive and contrary to the law.

“According to international standards, an arrest can only be made when there is a court order or flagrancy, otherwise it is illegal. In all cases, the State must ensure that detainees and their families receive accurate information regarding the reasons for detention and the place of detention,” said Commissioner Joel Hernandez, Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty.

The Commission warns that the new stage of repression is allegedly characterized by the deployment of a state strategy to prevent any social protest in the country through the occupation of public spaces and the deliberate prohibition of demonstrations. According to information received through MESENI, since September 23rd, state agents continue to occupy spaces previously used for demonstrations against the government, such as street roundabouts. In addition, the National Police has denied requests from civil society to hold commemorative marches for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, on November 25th, and the 70th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, on December 10th. In particular, the Commission observes that the resolution of the National Police that denied the permission to carry out this commemorative march points to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) as a participant in the “failed coup attempt, which has left an aftermath of trauma, mourning and pain for Nicaraguan families”.

In this regard, the Commission recalls that, in a democracy, States must act on the basis of the legality of protests or public demonstrations, and on the assumption that they do not constitute a threat to public order. This presumption must be established clearly and explicitly in the legal systems of the States. The general prohibitions and the establishment of authorization requirements for the exercise of the right of people to participate in peaceful protests have an excessive impact on society due to their inherent silencing effect, in addition to being disproportionate and arbitrary.

The Rapporteur for Nicaragua, Commissioner Antonia Urrejola, said: “Measures such as the requirement of prior authorization to hold protests, the threat of prosecuting and punishing those who participate in them, and the symbolic taking of public spaces to prevent the exercise of the right to social protest are incompatible with a democratic society in which public debate should be promoted, and the full and free exercise of all fundamental rights.” In addition, the Rapporteur stressed that “in this serious context of repression and silencing of all dissent and opposition to the Government, the permanent monitoring role that the Commission carries out, through its different mechanisms, is essential to make known to the international community the restrictions against human rights in the country; to that extent, it is also imperative that the State provide response to all our requests for information and meetings repeatedly sent by the Commission.”

On the other hand, the Commission expresses its concern about the escalation of repressive measures and actions aimed at weakening the role played by human rights defenders and civil society organizations in Nicaragua. In this regard, on October 14th, the IACHR warned of the arbitrary detention of Haydeé Castillo, director of the Segovias Leadership Institute (ILLS), at the Managua Airport. Likewise, on November 28th the Commission denounced the arbitrary expulsion of Ana Quirós, director of the Center for Information and Health Advisory Services (CISAS), a naturalized citizen of Nicaragua. Subsequently, the IACHR was informed of the approval of decrees for the cancellation of the legal personality of nine civil society organizations, including CISAS and ILLS. Recently, through MESENI, the Commission learned that agents of the National Police had taken by force, without a court order, the offices of all of the sanctioned organizations, stealing property, information and documents. Likewise, on December 14th, the Ministry of the Interior informed that the movable and immovable property and any other assets of the sanctioned organizations would be passed on to the administration of the State of Nicaragua for the creation of the Comprehensive Attention and Reparation Fund for the Victims of Terrorism.

“In this stage of the repression in Nicaragua, with the appearance of legality, measures have been taken that affect the essential content of human rights and that prevent people from organizing, associating, participating politically and freely expressing their opinions. The State must cease immediately the use of these mechanisms that clearly violate inter-American standards and international human rights law,” said the Executive Secretary of the IACHR Paulo Abrão. “In particular, the escalation of actions taken against civil society organizations could have a serious silencing effect on human rights defenders due to the latent threat of using criminal law to retaliate against their work.”

In this new stage of state repression, the IACHR has repeatedly condemned the increase in attacks and harassment against opinion leaders, journalists and independent media workers (for example, in press releases 255/2018 and R267/ 2018). According to information provided by civil society, between October 20th and December 16th, 117 attacks against freedom of expression were reported in the country including acts of aggression, threats, intimidation, and harassment, among others. Additionally, the IACHR notes that on December 14th, the National Police occupied, without a warrant, the facilities of the newspaper “El Confidencial” and the program “Esta Semana”. On December 15th, riot police officers assaulted journalists and media workers who went to the National Police facilities to report the facts.

MESENI has also received complaints about the location of police checkpoints in the vicinity of the homes of journalists and media employees, the permanent surveillance by state or civilian agents, sometimes armed, surveillance by drones in their homes, detention at these checkpoints, and the exhaustive review of cell phones and other electronic devices and documents, among others. In this context of harassment and intimidation against the press, on December 13th, the Commission granted precautionary measures to Miguel Mora Barberena, Leticia Gaitán Hernández (Journalists of 100% Noticias) and their families, who were the subject of threats, persecution and siege in the framework of their work.

“The State of Nicaragua must cease intimidation against the independent media, as well as avoid any action against persons who, as a result of the manifestation of opinions or acts of protest, have issued messages that may be bothersome to the Government. The manifestation of dissent and protest, as well as an independent press that is free of intimidation, are intrinsic to a democratic regime”, said the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR, Edison Lanza.

The IACHR has documented a progressive and incessant deterioration of the situation of human rights in Nicaragua and of the rule of law itself as a result of the State’s repression of the protests. In this context, eight months after the start of the crisis in the country, the Commission reiterates its strong condemnation of the State’s reaction that has resulted in the death of 325 people and more than 2000 injuries; in more than 550 people detained and prosecuted; in the dismissal of 300 health professionals; and in the expulsion of at least 80 students from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN).

The IACHR calls on the Nicaraguan State to adopt urgent measures to free political prisoners, to restore the legal personality of civil society organizations, and to cease repression against the media, human rights defenders and opposition figures. In addition, the Commission calls on OAS Member States and the international community to reject the repression that maintains the enjoyment and exercise of the freedoms and rights of the Nicaraguan population in a critical situation today.

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. 273/18