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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports persistent repression of dissent in Nicaragua

Despite the negotiations between Nicaragua’s government and the opposition coalition Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia (Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy), and notwithstanding the release of 56 political prisoners earlier in 2019, the repression of dissent has persisted in Nicaragua. This is the conclusion of the latest report of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the country’s situation, published on 4th September 2019. According to data from OHCHR, more than 300 people were killed in the context of the 2018 protests and their repression - from April 2018 to the end of July 2019. Another 2,000 were injured, and over 80,000 were forced to flee Nicaragua. The OHCHR found evidence of human rights violations, including disproportionate use of force by the police that resulted in some extrajudicial killings, and prevalent ill-treatment and instances of torture and sexual violence in detention centres.

Despite evidence of such violations, OHCHR highlights that “State authorities have so far denied any responsibility and have instead blamed social and opposition leaders, human rights defenders and demonstrators for what they call the ‘coup-related violence’ and the negative impact on the country’s economy.”

According to the report:

“The most recent phase of the repression against sectors critical of the Government has been marked by violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Moreover, Government officials have resorted to rhetoric discrediting and attacking human rights defenders, journalists and persons critical of the Government. This situation has led to a continued and notable reduction of civic space.”

On 10th September 2019, Amnesty International issued a statement urging the Human Rights Council to respond owing to the gravity of the High Commissioner’s report and taking action at its next session if Nicaragua’s government fails to begin implementation of the OHCHR’s recommendations.

The following update details developments in Nicaragua from 16th July to 16th September 2019.

Association

On 16th July 2019, human rights lawyers’ organisation Defensores del Pueblo (People’s Defenders) denounced that their offices in Managua were surrounded by police patrol cars and that three persons trying to reach their offices were removed from the perimeter by the police. According to Julio Montenegro, leader of the organisation, the harassment took place in retaliation for recent cases in which the lawyers defended Nicaraguan political prisoners.

Two young men were arbitrarily detained in August 2019. On 1st August 2019, news outlets reported the disappearance and detention of Kevin Monzón Mora, 18-year-old who participated in anti-government protests. According to his father, the only information provided by the police was that Mora was under “process of investigation”. On 8th August 2019, human rights lawyer Julio Montenegro posted a video of Mora stating that he had been released after spending seven days in detention, where he was questioned by the police on his ideology, occupation and religious affiliation. On 2nd August 2019, 15-year-old Brayan José Putoy was reportedly detained in Monimbó, Masaya department. Initial information provided to his family was that Putoy had been detained on suspicion of having thrown contact bombs in protests. However, on 6th August 2019 the teenager was released after a judge determined that his detention had been illegal because no accusations were made against him. According to Putoy’s mother, he was beaten while being interrogated in prison and the police refused to provide information or to allow communication with the teenager while he was in detention.

On 1st September 2019, activist Ulises Josué Rivas was arrested in Comalapa, in the Chontales department. Rivas had previously fled Nicaragua after being persecuted for his participation in the April 2018 protests, but returned to the country in March 2019 because his father was gravely ill. He has been accused of aggravated theft and of injuring two tourists from the United States. Rivas’ family has accused the authorities of fabricating these charges, falsely accusing the activist. According to Rivas’ family and lawyer, he was hooded and severely beaten after his preliminary audience. Julio Montenegro, Rivas’ defence lawyer, posted on Twitter that a court hearing scheduled for 13th September 2019 was cancelled by a judge who claimed that the police did not bring the activist to court – yet videos published on social media allegedly show Rivas arriving at the courthouse in a police vehicle. On 19th September 2019, Montenegro denounced irregularities in Rivas’ legal proceedings, including through restricting meetings between Rivas and his lawyer.

In a separate case, on 10th September 2019, the coordinator of Asociación Nicaragüense de Transgeneras (Transgender Association of Nicaragua - ANIT), Ludwika Vega, was attacked at ANIT’s office in Managua. According to the report from CSO Race & Equality, two men entered the office and struck Vega with a stone, knocking out teeth and drawing blood. They attacked her with a sharp object, leaving her with injuries to the chest, back and side. The assailants also took Vega’s laptop computer and handbag. In an interview, Vega stated that she cannot be certain whether the crime was politically motivated and urged the police to conduct thorough investigations.

In yet another development, on 18th September 2019, Felix Maradiaga of the opposition movement Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco (UNAB) denounced being harassed by armed members of the paramilitary in motorcycles, who followed and surrounded the vehicle in which the activist was traveling. Maradiaga had been in exile since July 2018 and returned to the country only two days before this episode took place. A spokesperson for the Nicaraguan police denied the presence of paramilitary members but recognised that armed civilians were involved. The Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) shared Maradiaga’s video and urged the government to protect political exiles returning to the country. The Secretary General of the Organisation of American States, Luis Almagro, also published a Twitter message demanding full respect for the activist’s civil and political rights.

Peaceful Assembly

On 3rd September 2019, the police refused permission for a peaceful march scheduled by Unidad Médica Nicaraguense (Nicaraguan Medical Unit - UMN) for 10 September 2019 in Managua. The march was called under the banner "Unite for Justice and Peace in Nicaragua." Leaders of UMN denounced on a Facebook live video that the Nicaraguan police denied them the right to peaceful assembly without presenting any justification for their decision, in violation of the rights provided by the country’s Constitution. In August 2019, UMN denounced that several physicians had been fired from public hospital positions in retaliation for assisting injured demonstrators engaged in protests throughout 2018 and 2019.

On 9th September 2019, the anti-riot police surrounded the Centroamerican University’s campus in Managua because of a protest scheduled by the Movimiento Defensa Estudantil (Student Defence Movement - MDE). According to reports, the police used dogs and patrols to intimidate protesters and bystanders. Even with heavy policing, a small group of students gathered inside the university to demonstrate and demand autonomy for the university. On the same day, it was reported that the police also surrounded the Metropolitan Managua Cathedral in response to a small protest in the area.

Expression

In August 2019, exiled Nicaraguan journalists denounced suffering increasing harassment, with threats to their and their family’s lives. A representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that they have not received a response since alerting the government to this situation.

On 2nd September 2019, international writers’ association PEN International stated that the repression of freedom of expression in Nicaragua is becoming more acute, shown by the decisions of daily newspapers LA Prensa and El Nuevo Diario to reduce their print edition due to the authorities’ refusal to release from customs paper and ink imported by the outlets. This crisis has led an estimated 100 Nicaraguan journalists into exile since the political crisis started in 2018, as outlined by OHCHR. Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), also denounced the constant repression of Nicaragua’s media, stating that such a dire situation for the press has rarely been seen before in Latin America.

On 7th September 2019, journalist and owner of station Radio Darío, Anibal Toruño, received threats in the form of graffiti painted on his house’s façade. The messages, stating that Toruño was being watched, were painted overnight by eight unidentified persons. The journalist had only returned to Nicaragua days before on 30th August 2019. Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR,condemned the attack and urged the government to enact measures to protect the journalist.

On 16th September 2019, independent news outlet Nicaragua Investiga published a report focused on the country’s women journalists, detailing the additional risks to these professionals because of their gender. According to the journalists interviewed, Nicaragua’s police forces often use threats of sexual violence to intimidate women who report on the country’s situation.