Press Release

IACHR Concerned about Ongoing Repression in Nicaragua

July 11, 2019

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern about the ongoing repression in Nicaragua, almost five months after negotiations were formally launched. The IACHR further denounces the State’s unwillingness to restore full liberties and rights for all Nicaraguans, and to end impunity concerning the serious human rights violations committed since April 18, 2018.

Serious restrictions of civil liberties

Although formal negotiations between the government and the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (known as the Civic Alliance) were launched on February 27, 2018, the IACHR observes a persistent police state in Nicaragua, marked by a ban on social protests and by violations of other rights due to stigmatization, attacks and other acts of violence, harassment, and ongoing arbitrary arrests throughout the country.

The IACHR warns that, during the first half of 2019, the State rejected all requests filed by civil society to hold public demonstrations. The State also keeps up a disproportionate deployment of police officers in public spaces, to prevent all forms of social protest and demonstration. The State denied the group known as the Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco the permit it needed to hold a demonstration on May 26, to demand the release of political prisoners.

In May–June, the IACHR’s Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI, by its Spanish acronym) documented an increase in the number of acts of harassment and repression, to counter and inhibit forms of social protest improvised by the Nicaraguan people. Those acts include retaliation against businesses who took part in the general strike on May 23, and constant harassment against pop-up protest camps and against any events—including religious ceremonies and masses—staged by activists who have been released from prison and by people identified as opposing the government.

On June 15, in particular, the IACHR denounced that groups close to the government had attacked people who had attended a mass at León cathedral in honor of one of the fatal victims of the protests. That attack was allegedly perpetrated with the consent of the National Police, who appeared to tolerate it. At least five people were allegedly injured. According to the information received by the IACHR, riot police used rubber bullets, tear gas and sound bombs to attack demonstrators inside the parks around Managua’s cathedral, on June 16, following a mass to demand the release of political prisoners. On June 30, riot police allegedly attacked demonstrators who were protesting at the same site following another religious ceremony. According to publicly available reports, at least six people were injured. These events happened in a context of threats against the Roman Catholic church and against religious leaders, issued as intimidating comments on social media or as graffiti on the walls of some religious buildings. One priest from Estelí opted to leave the country after receiving threats. Further, Edwin Román—a priest who had been granted precautionary measures—was allegedly threatened on July 3 by National Police officers in Masaya.

The IACHR warns that restrictions imposed on social protests and actions to terrorize any kind of gathering that might lead to social demonstrations—including religious ceremonies—impact the rights to freedom of expression, association, and religion. The IACHR continues to observe that there are arbitrary arrests in cases involving pop-up protest camps and other improvised forms of protest, which impacts the rights to integrity and personal liberty. Those arrests are sometimes temporary, but some lead to criminal charges linked to drug trafficking and property crimes.

A year after the publication of its final report Gross Human Rights Violations in the Context of Social Protests in Nicaragua, the Commission reminds the State of Nicaragua of its duty to comply with recommendations 1 and 2, in order to “immediately cease repressing demonstrators and arbitrarily detaining those who participate in the protests,” and to “respect and ensure the full enjoyment of the population’s rights to protest, to freedom of expression, to peaceful assembly and to political participation.” The State of Nicaragua must also comply with recommendation 8, by “[dismantling] the para-police groups and [adopting] measures to prevent the continued operations of groups of armed third persons who attack and harass the civilian population.”

Former prisoners

Since negotiations started, the IACHR has been monitoring the State’s release from prison of people who had been arrested in connection with the crisis in Nicaragua. According to the information received by the Commission, over the period February 27–June 11, 2019, the State of Nicaragua released 493 prisoners, two of whom had not been arrested in connection with the crisis. Of those 493 prisoners, 387 were unilaterally released by the State, while 104 were released as a consequence of the newly enacted Amnesty Law. While the IACHR welcomes these releases, it also notes that, by June 25, 2019, at least 91 people arrested in the context of protests remained deprived of their liberty.

The IACHR observes the Nicaraguan State’s constant refusal to publish official information concerning suspects arrested and prosecuted in the context of the crisis, which—along with prisoner releases outside the framework of agreements and along with the persistence of daily arbitrary arrests—preclude the availability of exact figures on the number of persons deprived of their liberty for events linked to the crisis. This makes the work of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy in negotiations more difficult.

In recent days, the IACHR received—through the MESENI—information on court decisions that ordered various criminal cases to be closed based on the Amnesty Law. Despite all this, the IACHR warns that people who have been released from prison are mostly denied access to the grounds for their release and the rights associated with it. Further, they keep being summoned for hearings, and their trials remain open. According to the information received by the Commission, the National Police failed in many cases to return to people released from prison personal objects including ID cards, cell phones and electronic equipment. Those people were often also subjected to harassment, surveillance, intimidation and threats on social media. These acts of violence are mostly committed by government supporters and by the National Police.

“Holding unjustified criminal proceedings open negatively impacts the rights of people who have recently been released from prison, given uncertainty concerning their legal status,” said Commissioner Joel Hernández, IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty. “The mere possibility that those criminal cases may be re-opened at any time has a deterrent effect on their exercise of their rights,” Hernández said.

The IACHR further expresses its profound concern about the information collected by the MESENI in statements made by people released from prison. Those individuals recount having suffered cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment—that may in some cases amount to torture—while they were deprived of their liberty. Since repression started, those actions have been extensively denounced by both the IACHR and other national and international human rights organizations.

In this context, the IACHR again calls on the State to comply with the recommendation held in section c) of the final report on its visit to Nicaragua, by “[beginning], at its own initiative and immediately, an effective investigation that makes it possible to identify, prosecute, and punish those persons responsible for abusive treatment and torture. That investigation should be carried out by the legal means available, be geared to determining the truth, and be conducted within a reasonable time. In addition, it should be governed by the principles of independence, impartiality, competence, diligence, and dedication.”

Impunity for serious human rights violations

Since the beginning of 2019, the Commission has condemned the expeditious approval—without any broad consultation processes—of a series of laws that are incompatible with the rights to truth, access to justice and comprehensive reparation of victims of the repression that started on April 18, 2018. These pieces of legislation include the Law for a Culture of Dialogue, Reconciliation, Security, Labor and Peace, which was passed on January 24, 2019; the Comprehensive Care for Victims Act, passed on May 29, 2019; and the Amnesty Law, passed on June 8, 2019.

In recent weeks, in the context of the implementation of Nicaragua’s Comprehensive Care for Victims Act, the IACHR has been told of the launch of more than 3,000 “committees for reconciliation, justice and peace” all over the country. The IACHR stresses its concern about the lack of consideration for victims of State repression and their families in the Comprehensive Care for Victims Plan adopted by the State, and also about the State’s failure to comply with international standards on adequate, comprehensive reparation for human rights violations.

The IACHR stresses the recommendations made to the State of Nicaragua in the final report on its visit. These recommendations include the duty to protect the right to know the truth for victims and their families, and the implementation of a multidisciplinary program to address the psychological impact of those events on individuals—particularly victims of human rights violations and their families—with actions based on a human rights approach and a gender perspective.

“Restoring rights and ending impunity are essential conditions both to prevent serious human rights violations from happening again in the future and to ensure an exit from the crisis that is compatible with human rights. Unfortunately, at the IACHR, we observe that the government’s reconciliation policy and the series of laws that have been passed are far from complying with the State’s international obligations,” said Commissioner Antonia Urrejola, IACHR Rapporteur for Nicaragua and head of the Commission’s Unit on Memory, Truth, and Justice.

Situation of Nicaraguans who have been forced to leave their country

The IACHR notes with concern that thousands of Nicaraguans continue to flee their country because repression persists. In recent days, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) updated the figure to 70,000 Nicaraguans who requested asylum in countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico and the United States from the beginning of the crisis until May 2019.

In this context, the IACHR continues to monitor the situation of Nicaraguans who have felt forced to flee to those countries given the crisis that started on April 18, 2018 in Nicaragua. On June 12, 2019, the IACHR denounced some of the obstacles that displaced Nicaraguans face to exercise their rights in Honduras and Costa Rica, for lack of access to a job and to education because they do not have ID documents or credentials to prove past studies. In a visit to Miami on June 17–18, the IACHR was informed of the challenges faced by people forced to flee Nicaragua who travel to the United States.

The IACHR is deeply sorry that some Nicaraguans who have had to flee their country in the context of repression have lost their lives in as yet unexplained circumstances. Examples include the murder of Edgar Montenegro Centeno, 56, and his son Jalmar Zeledón Olivas, 31, on June 27 in the Honduran department of El Paraíso, on the Nicaraguan border. According to the available reports, both men fled Nicaragua in November 2018, after being branded as terrorists by the National Police for taking part in roadblocks in the Nicaraguan municipalities of Wiwilí and the Cuá.

Through the MESENI, the Commission continues to receive statements from young students who have gone into exile or been released from prison as victims of repression. Many of them have said that they were expelled from their universities and that their academic records were completely deleted from university computers, so they find it very hard to get on with their plans in exile.

The Commission stresses its call on States in the region to implement a strategy based on shared responsibility, on international protection, and on the adoption of a human rights approach to the forced migration of Nicaraguans. The IACHR further calls for all necessary measures to be taken to ensure a restoration of the life plans and rights of students who have gone into exile and been expelled from their universities, in compliance with international human rights law. Through the MESENI, the Inter-American Commission stresses its disposition to provide any advice and technical cooperation required, in keeping with its own mandate.

Continued shutdown of democratic spaces

Since December 2018, the Commission has identified a stage of repression in Nicaragua that is marked by the adoption of measures and decrees which—while seemingly legal and strictly formal—have illegitimately restricted the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, all of which are essential for any democratic society to function effectively. This indicates a pattern of State action aimed at silencing, intimidating and criminalizing all voices that oppose the government’s position.

The IACHR warns that this closing of democratic spaces in Nicaragua persisted during the first half of 2019. In particular, human rights defenders in the country continue to work in a scenario that puts their rights at risk, amid tougher stigmatization and smear campaigns, surveillance and acts of harassment against them, and the constant threat of closure that other civil society organizations face from the National Assembly.

Further, while the IACHR welcomed the release of journalists who had been deprived of their liberty—including Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda, of the TV channel 100% Noticias—it has found that the situation for the exercise of freedom of expression has not improved. More than 70 Nicaraguan journalists remain in exile. The State has not enforced the immediate return of property to media outlets who have suffered confiscation, raids and occupations of their facilities.

Finally, the MESENI continues to receive statements and documents concerning worsening repression against members of the Peasant Movement and, more generally, against peasants who live far from the country’s cities, as well as against members of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in Nicaragua’s North Caribbean region. On June 26, the IACHR was informed of an attack perpetrated by government supporters against defender Marcela Foster—a member of the Kamla community in the Twi Yahbra territory—and two other members of that community. The IACHR observes that some difficulties—including lack of geographical access and, in some cases, lack of financial resources—make these groups particularly vulnerable to complain about persisting violence, threats, and arbitrary arrests in various departments, and also to access adequate legal counsel.

The need to end repression and open Nicaragua to international scrutiny

On June 28, 2019, the General Assembly of the OAS passed its resolution on The Situation in Nicaragua, where it stressed “the concern of the inter-American community about the deterioration of democratic institutions and human rights in Nicaragua, and its support for a peaceful solution to the political crisis that the country has been suffering for more than one year.” The General Assembly noted “the need for the Nicaraguan government to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its mechanisms, as well as other international human rights mechanisms, to enter the country.” The IACHR stresses its full and immediate disposition to cooperate and provide any technical assistance necessary to restore the full exercise of human rights in Nicaragua, among others with its own return to the country.

In the report on the situation in Nicaragua filed by the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights during the 41st session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, on July 10, 2019, the OHCHR stressed that it is crucial to ensure accountability—with no exceptions—for human rights violations committed in the context of the protests of 2018, and to enforce victims’ right to truth and reparation.

The IACHR further stresses its call on the State of Nicaragua, so it may end repression, defuse the atmosphere of intimidation that persists throughout the country, and particularly enforce the following elements: immediate restoration of the legal status of civil society organizations; openness to international scrutiny, with the participation of the OHCHR and of the IACHR’s MESENI; the immediate return of property to media outlets who have suffered confiscation, raids and occupations of their facilities; guarantees for a safe return for all persons displaced in the context of the crisis; and safeguards for impartial, diligent investigations into human rights violations. This includes the creation of institutions to ensure impartiality in the administration of justice; comprehensive reparation for victims, in compliance with international standards, and non-repetition measures through appropriate institutional reform; and the dissolution of para-police and armed third parties who continue to harass civilians.

“The IACHR acknowledges that the consolidation of any process for dialogue and expectations about attaining lasting reconciliation need to be based on the effective enjoyment of human rights, and to focus on victims’ needs and expectations,” said Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena, President of the IACHR.

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. 172/19