Crackdown on feminist rallies and harassment of former political prisoners in Nicaragua

Crackdown on feminist rallies and harassment of former political prisoners in Nicaragua
Feminist university students shout slogans during a meeting to mark International Women's Day. (REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas).

Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report, an annual study of political rights and civil liberties worldwide, continued to classify Nicaragua as "Not Free". Published on 4th March 2020, the annual report notes that Nicaragua had one of the largest declines in these rights and freedoms in the past 10 years, behind only Venezuela in the Americas. Some key developments in Nicaragua in 2019, according to the organisation, were the suspension of talks between government and opposition, and the approval of an amnesty law shielding public authorities from prosecution for extrajudicial killings and other crimes. Other trends highlighted by Freedom House include the release of large numbers of political prisoners, who remain nevertheless subjected to arbitrary detentions, and the continued state harassment of the press and dissidents.


Regional human rights network IM-Defensoras denounced two cases of harassment of women human rights defenders in Nicaragua in March 2020. Between 7th and 10th March, Johana Ocón, a member of the reproductive and sexual rights organisation Asociación Xochilt Acatl, reported that heavily armed agents of the anti-riot police conducted surveillance operations and besieged her home in Malpaisillo, León. As reported by IM-Defensoras, the defender also received threats from police officers, including a local chief of police. Ocón was in charge of coordinating various community activities with women engaged in the association to commemorate International Women's Day.

In another incident, on 11th March 2020 Nicaraguan police reportedly detained human rights defender Irma Centeno and subjected her to a violent interrogation. According to IM-Defensoras’ report, male officers beat the defender on the ribs and legs and used threatening and intimidating phrases, telling her they "had her under surveillance". Irma was released the following day. She had previously spent 75 days in prison after being detained on 16th July 2018 and criminalised for "conspiracy to commit terrorism". As analysed by IM-Defensoras, cases of aggression such as these two demonstrate the intensification of surveillance and repression of activists, civil society organisations and human rights defenders in Nicaragua.

Former political prisoner William Alfredo Balmaceda has also denounced his detention on 11th March 2020 and said his house in Managua remained under surveillance by police forces for several days following the arrest. Balmaceda is currently a member of the opposition political party Citizens for Freedom and a member of the Social Movement Free Nicaragua. According to news reports, more than 15 officers arrived at his home, harassed him and his family and took him to the police station. He remained in detention for more than 24 hours under accusation of allegedly plotting against Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. The dissident told digital media Artículo 66 that he believes the harassment took place to prevent him from participating in an event in aid of student protesters. The event, which was originally scheduled for 15th March 2020, was also cancelled due to the potential risks to activists. Balmaceda said that police officers warned him not to leave his house, attend protests or post on social media, and told him that he would be monitored every day. His house was besieged for at least three days following the arrest.

Peaceful Assembly

Feminist marches face repression

On 8th March 2020, feminist activists in Nicaragua organised meetings and flash demonstrations to commemorate International Women’s Day and to demand an end to gender-based violence and justice for victims of femicide. Several of the events, which mostly occurred within private properties, were met with police harassment and repression. At least 10 police patrols reportedly surrounded the headquarters of civil society organisation La Corriente in Managua, setting up a blockade at the entrance of the building to stop any of the event’s participants from leaving and protesting. Two members of the Comisión Permanente de Derechos Humanos de Nicaragua (Permanent Commission on Human Rights of Nicaragua - CPDH) were assaulted by security forces when attempting to leave the building.

Other events, including a rally by women of opposition movement Alianza Cívica inside a church and a colloquium by the Movimento de Mujeres Trabajadoras y Desempleadas (Movement of Working and Unemployed Women) also reported facing heavy policing and attempts at intimidation. Still, women of Nicaragua found creative ways to get around restrictions and protest. At the Universidad Centroamericana (Central American University - UCA), activists left pairs of shoes around campus, with red paint symbolising blood and signs showing the names and ages of women and girls killed by femicide in the country. Protesters also organised a flashmob of the Chilean feminist song “Un Violador en Tu Camino” (“A Rapist in Your Path”). The Movimiento Feminista de Nicaragua organised a radio and online broadcast “march” on 9th March 2020 with an analysis of issues relevant to the feminist movement in the country.

A government-sanctioned march with the participation of vice president Rosario Murillo also took place without any reported incidents.

Government-led COVID-19 march

On 14th March 2020, the government organised a march to raise awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic and show solidarity with affected countries. The march, called Amor en tiempos del covid-19 (Love in times of COVID-19) gathered thousands of government supporters and public officials in Managua.


Journalist assaulted

On 3rd March 2020, journalist Hans Lawrence Ramírez from Nicaragua Investiga was brutally assaulted by government supporters while covering the funeral of Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan poet and clergyman. According to news reports, the group of attackers shouted insults at people attending the funeral and harassed other journalists, who were able to get away. At least two other reporters were robbed during the confrontation, but Ramírez was the one most severely beaten and injured. He was taken to the emergency room with wounds all over his body and released on the same day. However, the beating resulted in acute renal failure and he had to be hospitalised for treatment on 10th March 2020. He left the hospital on 13th March 2020 to continue treatment at home. Ramírez’s journalistic equipment was also stolen during the assault.

Censorship and repression of the press

On 3rd April 2020, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) published a report on the situation of press freedom in Nicaragua. The information received by the organisation “reveals that the country is undergoing a virtual state of siege, in which media and independent journalists continue to be harassed and attacked”. Secrecy, lack of access to public interest information and censorship of critical outlets continue to be key issues. The IAPA also issued a resolution on Nicaragua demanding that the government cease its repression against journalists and protesters, and respect human rights and the basic principles of democracy.