Human rights defenders in Nicaragua subjected to criminalisation, defamation and harassment

A crackdown on protests in November 2019 has raised alarm in Nicaragua. On 14th November 2019, nine mothers of imprisoned opposition activists began a hunger strike in the San Miguel Church in Masaya, calling for the release of 130 people allegedly detained in the context of the protests. According to reports, the premises were quickly barricaded by police and pro-government groups, who cut off water and electricity. For the following days, they also prevented anyone from entering the church to deliver humanitarian aid supplies, including insulin for the priest, who suffers from diabetes.

Days later, on 18th November 2019, another group of protesters started a hunger strike in Managua’s cathedral. Dozens of government supporters then stormed the cathedral and allegedly attacked the protesters, the priest and a nun. Since then, newspapers have reported that several churches have been besieged by security forces to prevent their use for protesting. The original group of demonstrators in San Miguel Church were evacuated by the Nicaraguan Red Cross nine days after the building was barricaded.

On 18th November 2019, 16 Nicaraguan opposition activists were charged with transporting weapons – 13 of these activists were detained in Masaya when they tried to bring water and medicine to the strikers in the San Miguel Church. The charges carry a minimum sentence of five years in prison and were based on a police report saying authorities confiscated handguns, a shotgun and gasoline bombs with the activists. Nicaraguan police said that the arrested activists were also suspected of planning to carry out terrorist attacks. “We are very concerned that these apparently trumped-up charges may constitute a renewed attempt to stifle dissent,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesman in Geneva for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The following report details other incidents that have taken place between mid-August 2019 and 19th November 2019 in Nicaragua.

Association

On 29th August 2019, lawyer and human rights defender María Oviedo was found guilty of “obstruction of functions” and subsequently sentenced to 30 days in prison. Her sentence was suspended but on 19th September 2019 she was notified of a six-month suspension from the legal profession. The criminalisation process began when the lawyer was detained for over 50 hours following a clash with a police officer at the end of June 2019. According to news reports, Oviedo had been accompanying a former political prisoner at a police station in Masaya when an altercation took place, and an officer pushed and assaulted her. The police officer claims Oviedo attacked him, slapping him across the face.

Maribel del Socorro Rodríguez, a former political prisoner, denounced that she and her family have been subjected to repeated harassment in Managua and Masaya. Rodriguez was detained in December 2018 for participating in anti-government protests in Masaya. She was released in April 2019 but, since then, the attacks and the persecution against her and her family have not ceased. On 22nd September 2019, her husband was allegedly arbitrarily detained and later released in the middle of a highway. On the 26th September 2019, she received a judicial citation to present herself at the local police station and, according to women defenders CSO IM-Defensoras, her car was followed as she left the station and both her house and that of her husband’s family remain under siege.

International organisations report on Nicaragua

On 28th October 2019, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its bulletin on Nicaragua covering the August-September 2019 period, which raised concern about the continuous harassment of human rights defenders. According to the brief, human rights defenders released from prison under the Amnesty Law were often subjected to harassment and persecution, particularly those with a leading role in opposition groups and protests. Their lawyers have also been targeted at times. On20th September 2019, during the considerations on the outcome of the Universal PeriodicReview of Nicaragua, the state accepted 135 recommendations, rejected 24 and considered that 100 recommendations “did not apply due to lack of grounds and distortion of reality”.

Access CIVICUS and partner Federación Red Nicaragüense por la Democracia y el Desarrollo Local’s joint submission on Nicaragua in this Universal Periodic Review cycle.

On 19th November 2019, the Organisation of American States’ (OAS) High Level Commission on Nicaragua released a report saying that the country is experiencing “a critical human rights situation” urgently demanding attention. The report declares that there has been an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in Nicaragua. This conclusion was based on complaints and testimonies received by the Commission at “all its meetings with Nicaraguan political groups and representatives of civil society, trade unions, campesinos, journalists and business owners”. Among its conclusions, the OAS Commission states:

“The lack of freedoms in the country has become desperate, creating a critical situation with regard to civil and political liberties, which must be reestablished in order to restore the rule of law in the country.”

Peaceful Assembly

On 23rd October 2019, members of the feminist collective Colectivo de Mujeres de Matagalpa (Matagalpa Women’s Collective) were harassed while organising an artistic intervention to denounce that over 50 femicides have taken place in Nicaragua in 2019. They were organising an art-based protest outside the facilities of Radio Vos when a group of armed police officers arrived, restricting their right to peaceful assembly. The Collective was also targeted by a defamation campaign online, with messages circulated on social networks accusing them of terrorism and of conspiring against the government.

On 26th October 2019, dozens of protesters gathered in Managua and Tipitapa to protest against President Daniel Ortega’s government, despite a heavy deployment of police early in the morning. The demonstrators demanded the release of the remaining political prisoners, estimated at 139 by the opposition groups organising the protest, and called for Ortega’s resignation. According to Deutsche Welle, hundreds of anti-riot police officers surrounded the protesters, who were mostly mothers, wives and family members of the victims of the crisis.

In the city of Tipitapa, family members of detainees demanded that prisoners undergo medical assessments, as some of them have chronic conditions. Carlos Pavón, father of killed protester Richard Pavón, said that two patrol cars with 18 police officers were stationed in front of his house from the morning of the day of the march. Earlier in the year, family members of two Tipitapa victims had denounced being subjected to intimidation by police during an activity in memory of two young men killed. According to local newspaper La Prensa, a group of about ten armed officers showed up and followed the families when they were decorating the neighbourhood memorials for the two victims, an act that developed into a small spontaneous protest demanding justice.

Expression

On 27th September 2019, the newspaper “El Nuevo Diario de Nicaragua” announced that after almost 40 years, it is suspending publications due to the adverse economic, technical and logistical circumstances it has faced. As previously reported on the Monitor, since August there have been reports of the retention of materials such as paper and ink used for printing newspapers. According to CNN, two other newspapers have also suspended publication. On 27th September 2019, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) published a statement mourning the suspension of El Nuevo Diario, asserting that it is a voice silenced by Daniel Ortega’s repressive policy that punishes the press.

On 30th October 2019, Armando Amaya, a journalist with broadcaster Canal 12, suffered an arm fracture while covering a protest at the Metrocentro mall in Managua. Amaya’s fracture resulted from being pushed to the floor by a police officer. Wilmer Benavidez, from Nicaragua Actual, also had his phone knocked down by police officers while he was recording a clash between some protesters and the police. The journalists formalised a complaint before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which condemned the aggression.