Nicaragua remembers a year of uprisings and government repression

Mass in Iglesia Divina Misericordia commemorating victims of crisis. Managua, 13 July 2019. Photo:  Jorge Mejía Peralta @ Flickr
Mass in Iglesia Divina Misericordia commemorating victims of crisis. Managua, 13 July 2019. Photo: Jorge Mejía Peralta @ Flickr

Peaceful Assembly

— Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco (@UnidadNic) April 16, 2019

April 2019 marked one year since the beginning of widespread protests in Nicaragua, and the subsequent government crackdown that developed into a human rights and political crisis in the country. The civil society coalition, Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco (UNAB) called upon citizens to take to the streets on 17th April 2019 to commemorate, and protest the state repression that has continued since April 2018. In response, Nicaragua's government denied permission for the marches, claiming that organisers had previously engaged in "serious disruptions to the public order". Even with this denial and despite heavy policing, across the country hundreds joined in "Todos Somos Abril" marches.

The National Police claimed that there were no incidents or detentions during these mobilisations. Yet, Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco (UNAB) contradicts this version of events and issued a statement denouncing repression of the protests, by drawing attention to the alleged abduction of 68 demonstrators by police and paramilitary forces. UNAB also denounced the dispersal of over 300 demonstrators who were approaching the march. Abixael Mogollón, a reporter for independent media Articulo 66, was allegedly detained while filming a live transmission of the protest. Released the same day, Mogollón later used Facebook to criticise the police violence against himself and 4 others during the incident.

On 19th April 2019, a Via Crucis procession toward Managua Cathedral, an established Good Friday tradition in Nicaragua, evolved into a demonstration. Many attendants carried Nicaraguan flags and crosses, and demanded justice for victims killed in the crisis as well as the release of political prisoners. According to reports, at least seven police cars surrounded the cathedral's perimeter. A group of young people continued their protest outside the church after the end of the ceremony and were attacked by police forces who used pellets and sound bombs to disrupt the mobilisation. At least two people were injured in the confrontation. To escape the violence, the group sought refuge inside the cathedral, where they hid for several hours in fear of being captured or injured by police and paramilitary groups. While the episode was ongoing, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights urged the government to respect the right to peaceful assembly. Representatives of coalition Allianza Cívica Por La Justicia y La Democracia (Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy) and members of the Catholic Church mediated the evacuation of the group trapped in the church. A video of the protest can be seen below:

In April and May 2019, multiple religious services have been held to honour victims, while protests have continued to demand freedom for political prisoners. After the death of political prisoner Eddy Montes on the 16th May 2019, UNAB and the Civic Alliance organised a national strike to express solidarity and pressure the government into releasing political prisoners. On the 25th May 2019, the National Police prohibited a march against the Ortega regime.

Expression

On 2nd May 2019, Amnesty International published a statement by their Director for the Americas, Erika Guevara Rosas, on the multiple cases of attacks and harassment against journalists reported in Nicaragua since April 2018. Calling for the immediate release of detained journalists, and for the investigation of all reported attacks on journalists, Rosas said:

“It is deplorable that the Nicaraguan authorities continue to repress the press and violate its right to inform. In recent years, courageous journalists and media workers have faced attacks while covering protests and have been harassed and persecuted for doing their job and exercising their right to freedom of expression. Some, such as Lucía Pineda and Miguel Mora of the independent 100% Noticias channel, have been detained and are still in prison. More than 70 journalists and media workers have been forced to leave the country.”

On 6th May 2019, Nicaraguan news outlets reported that journalist Marlon Powell, a key voice criticising Daniel Ortega’s government, had issued a "call for help" through his lawyer. The journalist, under arrest since the beginning of March, was accused of organised crime, aggravated robbery and arson against the Nicaraguan State. Along with 9 prisoners, Powell decried being subjected to inhumane incarceration conditions after spending 5 days in a punishment cell. A few days later on 12th May 2019, Julio Montenegro, human rights lawyer at the Permanent Commission on Human Rights, reported that Powell and five political prisoners had been transferred to a cell known for poor conditions, "El Infernillo". On 7th June 2019, the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa (Inter-American Press Association - SIP) issued a press release announcing that it was organising an international mission to Nicaragua, to advocate for Powell's release as well as the release of journalists Lucía Pineda and Miguel Mora.

Finally, on 10th June 2019, Powell, Pineda and Mora were released under the Amnesty Law, as detailed in the Association section of this update.

On 14th June 2019, days after coming out of prison, Pineda pleaded for the government to allow the television channel 100% Noticias to return to independent operation. Pineda was press chief and Mora, director, of 100% Noticias when the outlet was raided and both journalists arrested in December 2018. Speaking in a press conference in Costa Rica, where her family lives, the journalist stated that she wants to return to her journalistic work, although she knows that journalists are among the groups most exposed to government pressures in Nicaragua as they handle information on the crisis. Pineda also spoke of the physical and psychological ill-treatment she endured in prison over the course of her incarceration.


Association

On 8th June 2019, Nicaragua's National Assembly approved an Amnesty Law in an urgent process that took place within 24 hours. The new law calls for the immediate release of jailed activists who were imprisoned since the political crisis began. While from the outset the law looks like a positive development, the legislation also prevents investigation into state and non-state actors who perpetrated human rights violations during protests. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (CIDH) expressed concern in a press statement, calling the law's content "ambiguous and ample". CIDH assessed that this ambiguity leaves important gaps, which may result in impunity. It also highlighted that the process did not include any dialogue with civil society or with victims of human rights violations.

On 10th June 2019, 56 political prisoners were released under the new law. Despite these developments civil society has reacted strongly to the Amnesty Law. A coalition of more than 70 opposition groups as well as human rights organisations rejected the law. The association of victims' mothers, Asociación Madres De Abril (Association of Mothers of April - AMA), condemned the law while demanding justice and truth for families. The Comité Pro Liberación de Presos Políticos (Committee For the Liberation of Political Prisoners - CPLPP) also condemned the law, stating that it seeks to give impunity to perpetrators and that what prisoners demand is not amnesty, but freedom. As a CPLPP spokesperson told the BBC:

"None of our abducted or prisoners of 'consciousness' need amnesty because they have done nothing wrong, and their freedom cannot be conditional as they are all innocent."

On the 27th June 2019, the Civic Alliance published a letter containing the names of 91 political prisoners yet to be released, and of another 102 people whose arrest has been reported but not yet confirmed.

On a separate incident, on 15th June 2019 in Leon, paramilitary groups attacked civilians who were attending a mass honouring the first anniversary of Sandor Dolmus' death. Dolmus, a 15-year-old altar boy who participated in anti-government protests, was killed by paramilitary groups in 2018. According to news reports, some participants in mass were demanding justice for Dolmus. Nicaragua's Allianza Cívica Por La Justicia y La Democracia (Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy) highlighted that the National Police was at the Cathedral, but did nothing to intervene when the paramilitary mob began to throw rocks and bottles at the church. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the attacks on their official Twitter profiles. Repudiating the violence, the Civic Alliance stated that the Nicaraguan government continues to use repressive tactics while attempting to present itself as respectful of human rights on the international sphere.

On 28th June 2019, the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) approved a new resolution on the situation of Nicaragua. The resolution (AG/RES. 2943) reiterates concern for the grave human rights violations that have taken place since April 2018 and urges the government to re-start negotiations with opposition groups. The resolution also drew attention to the government’s harassment of independent civil society groups and human rights defenders. On 11th July 2019, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy sent a letter to the OAS Commission welcoming the resolution and underscoring the need for prompt implementation of its recommendations. The Civic Alliance also stated that international organisations must be present in order to restore these negotiations.