Washington, D.C., October 6, 2020. Attacks and reprisals against Nicaragua’s former political prisoners, political opposition members, young people, human rights defenders, journalists, and indigenous and Afro-descendant people all increased in severity during September. Three government-backed efforts were also launched that threaten to cut off the ability of civil society to protect and promote human rights.
The first such effort is the call to apply a sentence of life in prison to “hate crimes,” a term defined in the broadest and vaguest sense. Not only would this effort fail to respond to the reality of violence against women and girls, President Daniel Ortega has signaled that he would use this power against opposition figures, who he has called “murderers,” “traitors,” “cowards,” and “torturers.”
The governing Sandinista party has also introduced the Law to Regulate Foreign Agents, which would require citizens and NGOs who receive any resources from foreign governments, agencies, foundations, or other sources to register as “foreign agents.” The proposed law would forbid these “foreign agents” from intervening in domestic politics or financing any other group that does so. They would also be barred from public office and from working for public entities. Those who refuse to register would risk confiscations and even criminal prosecution.
These two initiatives represent a serious threat to the viability of the political opposition, to the work of human rights defenders, and in particular to independent journalism, a field in which several leading outlets rely on international cooperation to survive. They indicate a willingness by the current government to use any tactics, including imprisoning those who dissent, to remain in power.
On September 28th, a proposed Special Law on Cybercrime was introduced, seeking to punish unacceptable social media posts with penalties from 1 to 4 years in prison and criminalizing the use of information technology to obtain data, documents, or information from public institutions or the banking and financial system. This law aims to clamp down on leaks that reveal the abuses of Nicaraguan authorities, which the government routinely discredits and dismisses as “fake news.”
These three efforts will lead to an even more severe deterioration of Nicaraguans’ ability to demand democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression, the press, and information. As was the case with the Anti-Terrorism Law, which introduced new crimes defined in vague terms, these efforts give wide discretion to the authorities, allowing for arbitrary prosecutions that carry severe consequences for their targets.
The right to life
Nicaragua was shaken by the rape and murder of two girls in Lisawe, Mulukuku in the Northern Carribbean Autonomous Region. Shortly thereafter, on September 17th, a 20-year-old pregnant woman was murdered in Ayapal. In August, the number of femicides in 2020 had already risen to 50. President Ortega specifically denounced the Lisawe incident and used it to promote his effort to impose life sentences for “hate crimes.”
Prison authorities continue to use solitary confinement arbitrarily, giving out indefinite punishments without the legally-required reviews. Student leader Kevin Solis, for example, remains isolated in a maximum-security cell at Jorge Navarro Prison (also known as Prison #300) in Tipitapa, while the political prisoner John Cerna has been held in confinement and subject to torture for shouting “Viva Nicaragua Libre!” in prison.
Reports of torture and other rights violations continue to emerge from Nicaraguan prisons, without any response or investigation by the authorities.
Reprisals against journalists
Police harassment against Radio Darío also persisted in September. On the 12th, multiple police cars parked outside the station to intimidate its staff.
Kalúa Salazar, news chief at Radio La Costeñísima in Bluefields, was found guilty of “calumny” on September 23rd in an unfair trial. The prosecutor requested an exorbitant fine during sentencing.
The television station Channel 12, one of two remaining cable channels that maintains an independent editorial policy, remains under receivership while authorities claim that it owes a 21 million-Córdoba (US$600,000) debt.
Attacks on the women’s movement
On September 25th, police surrounded the offices of the María Elena Cuadra Working and Unemployed Women’s Movement in Managua, preventing its staff from entering for several hours. The organization’s director, Sandra Ramos, stated that she would not be frightened by such tactics and that authorities sought to retaliate against her for challenging the government’s authority in the realm of women workers’ rights.
That same day, police detained two members of the La Corriente Feminist Movement. At least a dozen officers surrounded the woman, demanded personal information, and threatened them when they saw that the women were carrying materials with the Movement’s logo.
Various efforts to organize the political opposition have been met with police and para-police repression. On September 26th and 27th, a wave of violence was unleased against over a hundred opposition members and activists, including the breaking up of meetings, five arbitrary detentions, five raids of opposition members’ homes, and six cases of property seizure.
Reports on social media confirmed repression was felt in Managua, Río San Juan, and Chinandega. Police shut down a meeting of the National Coalition, detained the executive director of the Civil Alliance Juan Sebastian Chamorro and the Rama Kriol Territorial Government leader Jaime McCrea, and rounded up 17 indigenous and Afro-descendant citizens at the Indio Maiz protected territory.