At least 37 political prisoners in Nicaragua have presented COVID-19 symptoms say CSOs

Human rights and press freedom organisations have denounced that civic space constraints in Nicaragua continue during the pandemic, taking new forms. Lack of reliable information and even disinformation campaigns have been accompanied by continued harassment of defenders, journalists, critical voices and even doctors providing information on COVID-19.

Association

Political prisoners at risk during pandemic

On 30th May 2020, a group of political prisoners in “La Modelo”, Nicaragua’s largest prison, announced they would begin a hunger strike to demand freedom. Days earlier, on 14th May 2020, families of political prisoners in Nicaragua had alerted that at least 37 political prisoners have presented symptoms associated with COVID-19. According to news media, at least two of these prisoners suffer from pre-existing chronic conditions which put them in a particularly vulnerable situation during the pandemic.

Local civil society organisations have called for political prisoners’ immediate release, highlighting that they have been subjected to conditions that include prison overcrowding, poor medical care and hygiene, lack of safe water and access to medicine. On 22nd May 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, highlighted during a virtual event that there are still 86 political detainees in Nicaragua, despite a decision by the government to release a significant number of prisoners during the pandemic as previously reported on the Monitor.

In a separate development, on 7th June 2020, activist Katherine Ramirez reported that supporters of governing political party Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) vandalised her house in Estelí, leaving threats against her and her family. Katherine posted photos on her Twitter account showing a picture left by the attackers and messages such as “we are watching you”.

Expression

At the end of May and beginning of June 2020, several press freedom organisations and experts expressed concern about increasing reports of repression of free expression in Nicaragua in response to the pandemic.

On 27th May 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and two of their Special Rapporteurs expressed their concern over the absence of reliable information and continued misinformation by officials about the scope of the coronavirus pandemic in Nicaragua. Among the issues identified in the country’s COVID-19 communications are: confusing and unspecific information about how infections have occurred and protocols carried out, lack of detailed information on health personnels’ situation or equipment, no periodic reporting on infections, and official figures that show substantially fewer cases than those found by civil society and independent media investigations. The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has reiterated during the emergency that governments are obliged, under human rights law, to provide reliable and disaggregated information on the pandemic, avoiding the promotion of misinformation.

On 29th May 2020, PEN International stressed that members of the press in Nicaragua have faced “double censorship”. On the one hand, journalists are restricted when covering the COVID-19 pandemic, facing constant threats, harassment and even judicial persecution for their work. On the other hand, local media has reported that at least six independent journalists have presented coronavirus symptoms and have not been able to go to public hospitals for fear of reprisals from the authorities.

On 4th June 2020, human rights organisations CENIDH and FIDH published a statement claiming that the real number of COVID-19 cases in Nicaragua could be 20 times more than officially reported by government sources. Civil society initiatives such as collaborative project Observatorio Ciudadano Covid-19 Nicaragua have sought to produce independent data on the number of confirmed and suspected cases and deaths, in the face of the government’s lack of transparency on the situation.

On 6th June 2020, Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR highlighted cases of police harassment of journalists in Nicaragua in early June. Aníbal Toruño, director of Radio Darío de León, had his car seized and driving licence suspended indefinitely on the same day that he denounced police harassment of the radio station. Exiled journalist Gerall Chávez’s family house in Nicaragua was besieged by a police patrol. The Special Rapporteur said his office is following up on the cases and stressed that they took place just as journalists questioned government information on COVID-19.