IACHR Calls On the State of Nicaragua to Cease the Criminalization of Protest and Respect Persons Deprived of Liberty and Their Families
Managua / Washington DC – Four months after the start of social protests in Nicaragua and following eight weeks of work in the field by the Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) alerts about the ongoing stigmatization and criminalization of social protest on unjustified and disproportionate grounds; serious problems of access to legal defense and due process; and violations of the rights of persons deprived of liberty and their families. MESENI has registered a decrease in violent actions and the disproportionate use of lethal force at protests. Notwithstanding, the IACHR is concerned that an adverse environment for social protest, through a strategy of criminalization and stigmatization. This entails the use of declarations, Statements, and official announcements that intend to suggest that life is continuing as normal in the country while simultaneously stigmatizing demonstrators, dissidents, social leaders and human rights defenders.
The IACHR updates the number of people who have died during the events that have unfolded in the country since April 18, 2018, which now stand at 322, 21 of whom were police officers and 23 of whom were children or teenagers. In addition, according to the information received by MESENI, hundreds of people are currently under detention. However, the IACHR insists on the need for the State of Nicaragua to provide official figures and detailed information on the persons detained.
In response to the calling into question of its methodology by Nicaragua’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including the number of persons who have been killed, the IACHR reiterates that the monitoring work done through MESENI and other available mechanisms is carried out with extreme methodological rigor. This entails contrasting multiple information sources, including the testimonies of victims, victims’ families, civil society organizations, the media, and official sources. The IACHR keeps a record of its sources of information on the persons killed. As can be verified in the annex to the Report entitled Gross Human Rights Violations in the Context of Social Protests in Nicaragua, the IACHR has included each and every one of the fatal victims that the State identified as reported to the Commission. In its subsequent press releases, the IACHR has continued to incorporate the information provided by the State. However, according to the observed and verified evidence, the vast majority of victims died as a result of State action or vigilante forces in the service of the State.
Likewise, the numbers of deceased persons provided by the State are inconsistent. In notes sent by the State to the IACHR between June and July 2018, the State reported 37 deaths, most of them State agents or persons related to the government. Subsequently, in response to repeated requests for up-to-date information, the State reported in a note dated August 7 that a total of 450 people had died in Nicaragua between April 19 and July 25. This note remarked that 197 of these people were “victims of terrorist attempts to overthrow the government” and 253 had died in “homicide (common crime), traffic accidents, and other causes which were manipulated by people and organizations wishing to overthrow the government of Nicaragua in order to discredit, slander, and damage its image.” However, the report in question did not include a list of those who had died. Given the inconsistencies in figures reported by the State and its questioning of the Commission’s record of fatal victims, the IACHR reiterates the urgent need for the State of Nicaragua to provide access to detailed information on those who have died so that it can compare and check its own figures against those provided by the Nicaraguan authorities.
The IACHR also repeats its call for the State to carry out serious, efficient investigations into all killings of demonstrators as a consequence of the repression of the social protest, as well as all deaths that have taken place in the context of the violence that has taken place since April 18. The IACHR also calls on the State to provide information on the legal investigations that are currently underway in order to identify the person or people actually responsible for carrying out the crimes in question and those who planned or instigated them. In particular, it is mandatory that the Nicaraguan State provides information on the number and identities of those charged, detained, tried, and punished for these acts. Likewise, it is urgent that the State informs about the measures taken to comply with the recommendations of the IACHR directed to ensure that autopsies are carried out on all people killed by government agents or parapolice groups acting with the State’s consent.
The IACHR expresses its utmost concern at the persistence of violence in the repression of social protest, which continues to cause deaths and injuries, and at the information on arbitrary detentions, all of which have been recorded by MESENI through its work monitoring marches, sit-ins and protests, both of opposition and support for the government. On August 11, the IACHR was informed of the death of one individual, Lenin Mendiola, during the social protests that took place in Matagalpa. The IACHR expressed its regret over this occurrence and reminded the State of its obligation to protect the integrity of all persons and investigate events impartially. Subsequently, on August 19, the IACHR received information regarding agents of the national police force and government supporters who attacked persons taking part in the convoy to Masaya, resulting in two people injured.
Furthermore, during August MESENI has documented ongoing declarations and statements on the part of the highest State authorities that tend to stigmatize those taking part in social protests, accusing them of being “terrorists” or “attempting to overthrow the government,” among other epithets. These statements create an environment that could contribute to generating a sense of hostility and intolerance toward other sectors of the population, thus threatening the integrity and security of demonstrators, social leaders, and human rights defenders. Nicaraguan authorities mustput an end to stigmatizing speeches and statements.
In this context of criminalization of social protest, hundreds of people are being put on trial on unfounded, disproportionate charges involving widespread accusations of terrorism. Furthermore, as MESENI has shown, these proceedings have not respected the basic rules of due process. As an example, access to defense lawyers before scheduled hearings has been denied or hampered. Those persons charged are assigned public defense attorneys who generally suggest self-incrimination as the defense strategy. Hearings have been held in unusual places or at unusual times, preventing or hampering private defense attorneys from appearing at them. Access to hearings has also been denied to the general public and sometimes to the family of the accused. The IACHR also observes that the legal proceedings against dissidents and protesters, including criminal trials, are being centralized at the Managua courts, even though the events being investigated often took place in other municipalities. Information received by MESENI indicates that the Attorney General’s Office is using pre-written Statements to press charges of serious crimes such as terrorism, organized crime, and other similar offenses against those who have taken part in protests or shown support for these, including by providing humanitarian assistance such as donations of food and medicines.
At certain court hearings, the Nicaraguan authorities denied entry to family members, the independent press, and representatives of MESENI and the United Nations. This happened at the court hearing
that took place on August 14 against the peasant leaders Medardo Mairena, Pedro Mena, and Silvio Pineda. It happened again on August 15 in a hearing regarding the murder of journalist Ángel Gahona. Likewise, the IACHR notes that the defense lawyer for the two men accused of the murder of journalist Ángel Gahona received death threats just minutes before the hearing began.
MESENI has also found evidence of the continuation of the pattern of selective repression, with illegal, arbitrary arrests registered in the recent weeks, following the voluntary dismantling of roadblocks throughout the country or the forceful removal of these by the State. As an example, MESENI received reports on the arbitrary arrest of at least five people who had taken part in building community roadblocks in Juigalpa while demonstrating. Testimonies from victims and their families have been consistent in describing the method used for these arbitrary detentions: disproportionate use of force, no court order was provided, those being arrested were not informed of the reasons for their detention, nor were their families given information on where they would be held. Also, those arrested were not brought before a judge within the legally established timeframe. The IACHR is particularly concerned about the information documented by MESENI to the effect that the individuals on trial are not being guaranteed their right to a suitable defense attorney, as they are not being granted access to their own legal counsel and representatives before the hearings are held.
On August 9, MESENI was informed of the arrest of Víctor Manuel Díaz, a peasant leader from El Fajardo in Río San Juan department, and Bayardo Siles, and activist and student leader at UNAN Matagalpa who was released on August 18. National police agents and parapolice groups used a similar modus operandi during these arrests, presenting no court order, providing no specific information on the charges being pressed against the two or the reasons for their arrest, and making no timely communication with the accused’s families to inform them of their place of detention.
Rather than conducting impartial investigations to establish the truth of the facts and administer justice, the legal proceedings against these individuals show serious indications of being intended to criminalize dissidents and social protest. “The inappropriate use of criminal law against protesters, dissidents, and human rights defenders constitutes a violation of the right to personal integrity, legal protection, and legal guarantees”, the Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren, said. “In addition, it also has negative social consequences by affecting structures and producing a chilling effect on group and community leadership. This makes it mandatory for the State of Nicaragua to immediately end the use of criminal trials as a mechanism for retaliation against those who have taken part in protests and demonstrations, and to urgently adopt all the necessary measures to respect due process and judicial guarantees in all criminal trials”, he added.
With regards to the penitentiary system, MESENI has found evidence suggesting that it is having a serious effect on the families of those being held. Family members are subjected to a discretionary prison visit system whereby visits are postponed or rescheduled on the very day they are supposed to take place. There is a total lack of privacy during visits due to the presence of prison staff or police agents. The length of visits is assigned arbitrarily and ranges between ten minutes and two hours.
The extended withholding of information regarding the place where the accused are being held and other issues have forced mothers and other family members to travel to Managua from different regions of Nicaragua. This is generating a disproportionate burden on family members, who have to leave their jobs and change the way their nuclear family is organized. Many are also being threatened and harassed in their homes.
The IACHR once again stresses the particular obligation that the State has to guarantee that persons deprived of their liberty are guaranteed dignified conditions of arrest, which includes an appropriate, predictable visiting system. “It is the duty of the State to take measures to ensure that persons who are deprived of the liberty can maintain and develop the family relationships,” said Commissioner Joel Hernández, Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty.
The lack of official information from the State of Nicaragua on the number of people arrested and other data that would allow a better understanding of the dimension of this situation is very serious. This lack of information is combined with the impossibility imposed to MESENI to access legal or penitentiary facilities. These factors are hampering the process of monitoring the human rights situation of persons deprived of liberty. "It is urgent that this situation change and that the State provide the information and authorize the entry of the MESENI to the facilities where the persons deprived of their liberty are held and where judicial proceedings are taking place," said Commissioner Hernández. In the absence of official information, the IACHR particularly thanks the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) and the Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH) for their support of MESENI’s work in this area.
In addition, the IACHR notes with concern that in practice, adolescents continue to be prosecuted in the adult penal system. "It is the State's obligation to ensure that adolescents are treated under a specialized juvenile justice system based on the model of restorative justice, guaranteeing the protection of children's rights and the best interests of the child," said Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, Rapporteur on the Rights of Children and Adolescents.
Regarding the right to freedom of expression, MESENI has continued to register intimidation, harassment and threats against journalists in Nicaragua. MESENI has documented the report from the Matagalpa Women’s Collective (Colectivo de Mujeres de Matagalpa), the Venancia Group (Grupo Venancia) and Radio Vos concerning the slander and harassment that they have been subjected to. On August 14, Gerall Chávez, a reporter for Vos TV channel, Stated that threats and intimidating messages had been left by government supporters on the walls of his house in El Rosario, Carazo. On August 19, MESENI received information indicating that the German journalist Sandra Weiss, who works for Swiss newspaper NZZ, was subject to aggression, violence, and theft by masked armed groups while reporting on the occupation of land in Chinandega.
Likewise, the IACHR continues to receive information in August on the wrongful dismissal of doctors and health professionals who provided medical attention to those injured during the repression of the social protest. In particular, according to the testimonies received by MESENI, the dismissals are now individual rather than en masse, and are justified on the grounds of noncompliance with collective bargaining agreements or allegations of malpractice. This is having an intimidating and chilling effect in other health personnel. To date, according to the information MESENI has received, 135 people have been fired and several more are allegedly included in lists of persons to be dismissed.
In view of the current situation, the IACHR urges the State of Nicaragua to comply with its international human rights obligations in connection with the serious State of affairs that has been recorded in the country. These obligations include taking measures to end harassment and threats against victims of human rights violations; advancing impartial legal processes that comply with due process to shed light on truth and the administering of justice in connection with human rights violations; ceasing the stigmatization and criminalization of dissident protesters, opposition sympathizers and human rights defenders; and guaranteeing the access to reliable public information that enables the country’s human rights situation to be monitored.
“The IACHR will continue to follow up on the recommendations that it has made and monitor the human rights situation in Nicaragua seriously and rigorously, as part of its commitment to victims of human rights violations, human rights organizations, and the people of Nicaragua in general, in full compliance with its mandates and regulations,” said the president of the IACHR, Commissioner Margarette Macaulay.
The IACHR Rapporteur for Nicaragua, Commissioner Antonia Urrejola, stated: “To this end, the IACHR requires the State of Nicaragua to respond to each and every request for information that has been made of it, to provide access to detention centers, public hearings, interviews with the relevant authorities,and other places identified by MESENI. It also requires the State to comply with the cautionary measures that have been presented and the mechanism it agreed on with the General Secretariat of the OAS and the IACHR on May 30, 2018, in response to requests from the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) to gain access to files on investigations that may have been opened by the Public Ministry of Nicaragua and to obtain information on measures that seek to provide full compensation for victims of human rights violations.”
A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.