Washington, DC, February 25, 2019 – Two months have transpired since the Nicaraguan National Assembly invalidated the legal status of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH, for its initials in Spanish) without justification, and since then, police officers have illegally occupied the organization’s premises after having violently broken in and taken possession of a significant portion of their work equipment, documentation, and vehicles.
The illegal dissolution of CENIDH has been a “devastating blow” to its founder, Dr. Vilma Núñez de Escorcia. “We are one more victim of Daniel Ortega’s repression. We are no longer just human rights defenders who accompany the victims but rather, we [too] are victims,” she recently said in an interview with Race & Equality.
The legislators allege that on December 12, 2018, CENIDH and eight other civil society organizations committed illegal acts by disturbing the peace and carrying out activities that were not appropriate to the goals for which they had been founded. The process was swift, and those organizations were given no opportunity to defend themselves.Since the early morning of December 14 – the day on which the police officers illegally broke into CENIDH headquarters in Managua – the defenders have been unable to enter their offices, and in the face of the constant siege, have had to protect themselves in undisclosed locations. In addition, the Chontales office was also taken by the police and the affiliates in Matagalpa and Estelí are not sufficiently safe for the team to work on the premises.
“We had no time to make a collective decision as to what to do,” declared Núñez, who explained that the CENIDH team is currently disbanded. This situation has forced them to stop their direct work with tens of victims daily, especially within the context of the human rights crisis that has enveloped Nicaragua since April 2018.
At the international level, numerous human rights organizations, regional organizations, and cooperating governments that have partnered with CENIDH since its founding nearly three decades ago joined their voices to denounce the arbitrary nature of each organization’s shuttering.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed its “concern” regarding the real intention behind the cancellation of the legal status of civil society organizations. “The forced dissolution of the civil organizations, especially those related to human rights defense, constitutes one of the most severe forms of restricting freedom of association. Furthermore, this is a measure that affects defendants and their defenders and is aimed at silencing those who denounce the grave state of human rights in the country,” declared Paulo Abrão, Executive Secretary of the IACHR.
Similarly, the spokesperson for the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, said that the decision of the Nicaraguan authorities to revoke the legal status of the civil society organizations “represents an additional blow to the rule of law, civil liberties, and respect for human rights.”
Eight months of crisis
On April 18 , a group of elderly people accompanied by young university students began a protest in León against some social security reforms that increased the monthly fees paid by employees, employers, and the State while reducing retiree pensions by 5%. According to the decree, these reforms would serve to bail the Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social [Nicaraguan Social Security Institute] (INSS) out of a possible bankruptcy.
The protest in León was strongly suppressed by members of the Juventud Sandinista [Sandinista Youth], a group backed by the governing party. This pattern repeated itself in Managua, where these groups attacked protesters who called for the cancelation of the reforms from two different parts of the capital city.
Images of the repression were rapidly disseminated via social media and the following day, April 19th, the protests expanded into several departments in the country. The police joined the ‘assault groups’ [‘grupos de choque’] to repress [the protests] and by nightfall the first three deaths were reported. More than 50 people died between April 20th and 22nd as a result of the repression, while 200 others were temporarily detained.
The CENIDH team immediately threw themselves into responding to the crisis. Dr. Vilma Núñez was the one who organized a plan of action they would begin to execute that day and, though she did not know it at the time, continue over the course of the next eight months.
“What I did was to assign concrete roles to everyone: one person was in charge of keeping count of the prisoners; my office kept count of the dead; another person was in charge of the denunciations . . .” recalled Núñez, who has been “an active participant in the cause of human rights” for 60 years.
Wilfredo Suazo papá de Yubrank Suazo y la Tamara Zamora mamá de Amaya Coppens dirigentes del Movimiento 29 de abril de Masaya y León, denuncian la captura de su hijos e hija en el Cenidh. La Dra. Vilma Núñez de Escorcia calificó como de una acción perversa de Daniel Ortega pic.twitter.com/j04SmjUnK5— Cenidh (@cenidh) 11 de septiembre de 2018
CENIDH held press conferences on an almost daily basis and its team’s capacity to respond by verifying information was very agile. The members of the four CENIDH affiliates traveled to the places where attacks against the population had been reported, accompanying the relatives of the disappeared and detained to attend to the procedures to gain their release from the penitentiary systems of the Dirección de Auxilio Judicial [Directorate of Judicial Aid] (DAJ). They also documented denunciations of human rights violations committed primarily by people related to the government, paramilitary groups, or members of the Nicaraguan Police.
By six months after the onset of the human rights crisis in Nicaragua, CENIDH had received more than 1,800 denunciations regarding the repression and violence, with most of them coming in between May and August. Those denunciations primarily concerned threats, though they also received denunciations regarding people who had
been detained, assassinated, and tortured, according to the report Grave Human Rights Violations Perpetrated by the State of Nicaragua published by CENIDH at the end of 2018 that describes the rights that had been violated during six months of civil resistance to governmental repression.
Said report details how between April and September CENIDH documented the assassination of 316 people [and] arrest of 349 women and men; of the latter, 248 have to date been accused of diverse crimes, among them terrorism, organized crime, hindering public services, robbery, and the use of restricted weapons.
During this time, CENIDH also worked very closely with international missions that traveled to the country to monitor the crisis, such as the IACHR on its first field visit in May, as well as its Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) and its Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI); the mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR); and other independent organizations, such as Amnesty International.
This intense work of accompanying the victims and denouncing in the national and international arenas the human rights violations that were occurring – and continue to occur – is for many activists, defenders, and CENIDH members themselves the reason they were persecuted by the authorities.
“This persecution is nefarious,” denounced Vilma Núñez to national journalists last year. The obstacles faced by CENIDH defenders in doing their work increased every so often: they were not allowed into the oral and public trials; they were not allowed to advocate in public instances; and they confronted obstacles to filing legal appeals in governmental agencies.
“I believe the government began to see CENIDH not only as an irritating actor but rather, a wrench shoved into some of the measures which they wish to continue implementing and into their political governing plan,” commented Viviana Krsticevic, Executive Director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), an organization that has worked with CENIDH since its founding.
CENIDH was founded in May 1990 when Violeta Barrios de Chamorro became President of Nicaragua, ending a decade of Sandinista government. Its founders, a group of 11 activists and academics, thought that some of the achievements driven by the revolution in the area of economic and social rights – such as free healthcare and education – would be limited by the new government. “That was the initial idea that drove us,” recalls Vilma Núñez, who led the new organization. It gained legal status in September of that same year.
“We would always verify the denunciations of human rights violations in the places where the incidents occurred, not in the office,” says Núñez.
The first task they set for themselves was to start building capacity. “Our challenge was to teach people that demanding healthcare in a hospital, demanding high-quality schools and education, are human rights,” recalls the lawyer-defender. Thus was born CENIDH’s human rights training program – a program that trained thousands of people for years and resulted in a network of promoters that at one point totaled 1,500 members throughout the country.
However, they also began receiving denunciations of human rights violations, gathering evidence to verify them “in the places where the incidents occurred rather than in the office,” and denouncing the arbitrariness of the respective governmental administrations.
“There were no significant problems with Ms. Violeta’s government; on the contrary, there was openness. Some problems began with Arnoldo Alemán,” notes Núñez. The administration of Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2001), through the Office of the Public Prosecutor, accused Vilma Núñez of leading the Frente Unido Andrés Castro [Andrés Castro United Front] (FUAC), a group of rearmed people comprised of former members of the army. CENIDH had in fact been sought out to play the role of mediator in the disarmament negotiations. However, then-Attorney General Julio Centeno rejected the accusation because there was no evidence to sustain it. Nevertheless, CENIDH continued denouncing President Alemán’s corruption; he was later sent to trial and declared guilty of money laundering in Nicaragua.
[While] the government of Enrique Bolaños Geyer (2002-2006) “could not conceive of an alliance with civil society with regard to governmental proceedings, there was no repression,” recalls Núñez.
Following Bolaños, Daniel Ortega assumed power anew in early 2007. Since then, and until shortly before the crisis was unleashed, CENIDH began to issue warnings regarding the deterioration of the rule of law in Nicaragua – not only at the national level but also on international platforms.
“On the international level, the work performed by CENIDH in recent years has been very important in drawing attention to [and] warning about the deterioration of the rule of law and a series of patterns of human rights violations occurring in Nicaragua that were not on the international radar,” affirmed Viviana Krsticevic of CEJIL.
Krsticevic well knows the work performed by CENIDH: since CEJIL’s founding in late 1992, both organizations began to work collaboratively. “CEJIL worked quite a bit with CENIDH, precisely to issue warnings regarding the deterioration of democracy in Nicaragua under various administrations,” notes the defender.
Together, they have requested precautionary measures for tens of persons who have been at risk, and they brought CENIDH’s first lawsuit in the Inter-American System, the Yatama Case.
The case of Yatama vs Nicaragua
In 2001, CENIDH and CEJIL filed a petition before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in representation of the members of the Yatama indigenous organization and political leaders of the Autonomous Regions of the Northern Caribbean Coast and Southern Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, suing the State of Nicaragua for having excluded them from participating in regional elections in 2000 when mayors, deputy mayors, and councilmembers were chosen.
The petition was admitted in 2001, and in 2005 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Yatama, declaring that the State of Nicaragua had violated the indigenous leaders’ rights to judicial guarantees, judicial protection, and political rights of equality before the law.
In the ruling, the Court ordered the State of Nicaragua to reform its Electoral Law so as to ensure the participation of members of indigenous communities in electoral processes, compensate Yatama for material and intangible damages, and pay its trial costs.
Approximately 13 years have passed since the ruling was issued, yet “the government has not fully complied,” maintains Núñez, given that although the government began to issue compensation, it imposed the condition on the members of Yatama that CENIDH could not participate in the arrangements between the two parties.
The case of Acosta vs Nicaragua
Afterward, CENIDH also accompanied María Luisa Acosta, a defender of human rights and indigenous and Afro-descendant communities on the Caribbean Coast, in filing her case before the IACHR, wherein she denounced the State of Nicaragua for a partial failure of justice and lack of protection for herself following the assassination of Francisco García Valle, Acosta’s husband. The crime occurred in Bluefields, in the Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region in Nicaragua, on April 8, 2002, allegedly in retaliation for Acosta’s role as a human rights defender and legal representative of the communities of Laguna de Perlas, Monkey Point, and El Rama.
The IACHR referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and in October 2016 a first hearing was held. Finally, in March 2017 the Inter-American Court ruled in favor of Acosta and determined that the State of Nicaragua had violated the American Convention on Human Rights to the detriment of the defender, in light of the fact that the responses of Nicaragua’s criminal justice system were insufficient regarding García Valle’s homicide.
In addition, the Inter-American Court declared the State of Nicaragua responsible for violating the rights to justice, truth, judicial guarantees, and judicial protection to Acosta’s detriment. Furthermore, it ordered the State to adopt measures to ensure the homicide would not remain shrouded in impunity with regard to the participation of the perpetrators; develop protection mechanisms and investigation protocols for human rights defenders who are at risk; and pay compensation to Acosta to cover the material and intangible harms sustained and repay her costs and expenditures.
The State finally compensated Acosta, her family, and the litigating organizations; however, it has yet to draw up protocols, nor has it adopted measures to ensure cases like Acosta’s are not repeated.
In addition to these cases that have been litigated, CENIDH has filed more than 20 cases before the IACHR, although not all have been referred to the Inter-American Court. Currently, the organization is litigating several cases, such as the femicide of Dina Carrión; cancellation of the legal status of the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista [Sandinista Reformer Movement] (MRS); discrimination faced by Ana Margarita Vijil in her quest to serve as a legislator in the National Assembly; and transparency in the 2006 presidential election.
During its nearly 30 years of existence, CENIDH has participated in appearances before United Nations bodies; thematic hearings before the IACHR and its Rapporteurs; the drafting of reports for the three cycles of the Universal Periodic Review; [and] advocacy activities regarding the priorities contained in said reports, and is a member of worldwide organizations such as the World Organization against Torture and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its regional organizations.
“CENIDH has demonstrated over time a level of consistency [and] integrity in the defense of rights, in the defense of democracy in Nicaragua that make it an essential actor in human rights work,” opined CEJIL’s Executive Director.
Vilma Núñez believes the current government of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, has “attacked CENIDH more than any other [organization]. We never imagined there could be so much hatred, so much cruelty,” she confesses.
According to Núñez, the problems with the current presidential couple began in 1998, when CENIDH decided to defend Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo, Ortega’s stepdaughter, who had accused him of rape.
The case was made public and reached the IACHR. “We managed to get it admitted and they proposed an amicable settlement,” says Núñez. In the end, Zoilamérica withdrew the petition. Nonetheless, Ortega did not cease his persecution of CENIDH members, who continued denouncing the human rights violations committed by the authorities against the populace.
Denunciations at the national level
In recent years, CENIDH received an average of 1,600 denunciations yearly from the population in various departments throughout the country, who saw this organization as the place to turn to in their search for justice due to the lack of autonomy of institutions such as the Human Rights Defense Ombudsman.
According to CENIDH’s annual reports, between 2007 and 2016 35% of the denunciations received by this organization were against the National Police (some 5,584). Said denunciations were related to physical assaults and abuse at the moment of detention; repression of social protest; lack of compliance with the duty to intervene on behalf of the physical integrity of citizens who were demanding their rights before the ‘assault forces’ [‘fuerzas de choque’] that attacked them; and cruel [and] inhuman treatment and torture in police cells.
During that same period, the rest of the denunciations were against private individuals (31%, or 4,965 cases) and other authorities or private entities (34%, or 5,456 cases).
CENIDH’s annual reports provide irrefutable proof of the work performed every year by that institution’s defenders at the national and international levels. In addition to analyzing the state of Nicaraguans’ rights one by one – including civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights – they detail specific situations regarding the rights of women, children and adolescents, the elderly, persons with disabilities, immigrants, indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, the LGBTI community, and human rights defenders. These reports take the pulse of the country’s current situation in the year in which they are published.
The outlawing of CENIDH due to all of ifs aforementioned work represents a loss of capacity in the work of defending the rights of all Nicaraguans, according to Viviana Krsticevic. “Human rights protection does not only depend on the existence of laws and institutions; it requires people who are willing to defend those rights, and CENIDH was and is an organization that has served that purpose. Its legal shuttering hinders and limits the capacity to protect rights in the country and affects the capacity to document and transmit information to the outside,” noted the CEJIL representative.
Krsticevic adds that the legal shuttering of CENIDH “is not the end of the institution by a long shot and does not represent the end of work to defend human rights in Nicaragua,” but rather, is “evidence of the authoritarianism of the government in confronting denunciations of grave human rights violations and confronting some of the denunciations of abuse being committed by the government itself.”
Although for the moment CENIDH has ceased directly working with the tens of victims it used to attend to on a daily basis, especially within the context of the human rights crisis in Nicaragua, Núñez is hopeful that her team will continue the project she founded almost 30 years ago. “I think that when this dictatorship ends, they will have to return everything to us. Perhaps I will no longer be able to do so, but the team that wants to continue CENIDH will have to do it,” she states.
The organization, putting into practice its logo “Rights that are not defended are rights that are lost,” has filed legal appeals which, once resolved, will permit it to file complaints internationally regarding the stripping of its legal status and illegal occupation of its assets that has had, for all intents and purposes, the effect of a de facto seizure.
Principal photo: EFE