Washington D.C. November 4, 2019. More than 600 people were released from prison between February and June of this year by the Nicaraguan Government, after being arrested and convicted of crimes for having participated in the protests begun in April 2018. Authorities applied a controversial Amnesty Law to those who were released in June, guaranteeing impunity for those responsible for serious human rights violations. The law did not apply to all political prisoners equally, and around 26 people were left in prison. Taking into account that arrests continued beginning in July of this year, the number of political prisoners has risen to 139 as of September, according to the latest count of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy.
Among these 139 political prisoners there is only one woman, the young university student María Guadalupe Ruiz who is 22 years old. The others are university students, farmers, professionals, workers in the informal sector, and even retired people.
“People (in prison) include those who participated in social protests and expressed their repudiation of the government,” says Julia Baltodano, a lawyer from the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH, for its initials in Spanish), an organization currently documenting the human rights violations suffered by these prisoners. In general, these people did not have media exposure before their arrest.
The method of criminalizing political prisoners has been transformed: they are no longer accused of having attempted to destabilize the country or of trying to overthrow the government through violent methods, but instead are accused of common crimes.
“Now, they try to disguise the cases and accuse them of common crimes: aggravated robbery, threats, illegal carrying of weapons, drug trafficking, and they no longer accuse people of ten or fifteen crimes (as they did before), but of one or two. The idea of the regime is to say: there are no political prisoners, there are only common criminals here,” explains Alexandra Salazar, a lawyer with the Legal Defense Unit for Political Prisoners, a group that is currently defending more than 20 political prisoners and is managing the uncertain legal situation of released persons.
This new strategy has made it difficult to identify political prisoners, but defenders are aware of these cases through media monitoring, family reports to human rights organizations, or social media publications. CENIDH, for example, verifies whether these persons participated in the anti-government demonstrations and if there were threats of detention or prior harassment, and then analyze whether the evidence presented by the Prosecutor’s Office against them is consistent. The Legal Unit of Political Prisoners also has networks in other departments that corroborate the information with family members and other organizations that work for the release of political prisoners.
Another new strategy adopted by the authorities is to abandon the previous pattern in which the great majority of political prisoners were transferred to detention centers in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. Now, most of the political prisoners are in departmental detention centers, with the intention of generating less attention from public opinion and reducing the effect of the demands for freedom made by prisoners’ families and organizations that accompany them.
“Now the majority remain in their home jurisdictions, as part of the change in pattern, to make all of this less visible. If they are transferred from their department (city) to the Directorate of Judicial Assistance (in Managua), that shows an obvious interest in that person,” explains Salazar, whose group defends people from Managua, but also from León, Estelí, Masaya, and Granada.
Some irregularities in the judicial process that were identified by the CENIDH include: illegal detentions, presentation before the judge after 48 hours in violation of the provisions of the Nicaraguan Constitution, delay of justice, private instead of public hearings, breach of release orders, and denial of detainees’ contact with their lawyers or family members.
Although the State continues to refuse to recognize that there are political prisoners under its custody, both experts consulted by the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights insist that it is essential to continue denouncing the existence of political prisoners in Nicaragua on national and international platforms.
Race and Equality joins the repeated calls to the State of Nicaragua to immediately release the 139 political prisoners and to proceed to definitively dismiss the investigations and judicial cases against them, as well as for the expungement of their criminal records. The State must guarantee due reparation for human rights violations and the social, moral and material damages they have suffered, as well as those suffered by all of the people who were arbitrarily detained and prosecuted irregularly after the events of April 2018.