Nicaragua: A Human Rights Crisis

Social media has visibilized many human rights atrocities in the recent past and been crucial in the mobilization of masses, as it is able to transmit information to a great audience.

Since the very beginning of the crisis in Nicaragua, activists have taken to Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media to raise awareness of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the government. Most recently, activists from the Alianza Universitaria Nicaraguense (AUN) or the Nicaraguan University Alliance have organized a week-long campaign of civil resistance. The campaign “Navidad Sin Presos Politicos” or “Christmas Without Political Prisoners”, from Monday, December 17 to Friday, December 21 demands the Ortega-Murillo government to release all political prisoners before Christmas Day.

On Monday, December 17, the “Llamada Masiva” urged citizens to make phone calls to the Supreme Electoral Council, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Ministry of the Interior. On Tuesday, December 18, the “Paro Electrico” urged that from 8-9pm everyone turn off all their lights in solidarity with political prisoners. On Wednesday, December 19, the call for “Sonemos Nicaragua” asked everyone turn on their radios, which will be playing “Nicaragua, Nicaraguita” on Corporacion radio station  after 6pm. On Thursday, December 20, the “Paro de Consumo” urged everyone to not buy any goods and to support the national strike. The campaign ended on Friday, December 21, with the “Cacerolazo y Pitazo” which urged everyone to make noise in the streets, at home, or anywhere they can after 6pm and onwards. All of the information regarding the week-long campaign has been hashtagged #NavidadSinPresosPoliticos and been posted massively by Nicaraguan activists, civil society, and on AUN’s Twitter and Facebook page.

Photo by Carlos Herrera

So, how did Nicaragua get here?

On April 18, the Nicaraguan national police, headed by current President Daniel Ortega, opened fire on peaceful demonstrators protesting social security reforms. The government functioned under the guise that the reform would “guarantee the financial sustainability of the social security institution,” yet the reform was undertaken only by the executive branch and private sector. Its effects on the population –  a 21% increase for worker contributions to the INSS (Institute of Social Security) and a 5% deduction to the pensions of retirees.

When the first wave of protests commenced, Nicaraguan civil society’s only demand was to dissolve the social security reform. However, after the withdrawal of the social security reform on April 22, the State’s excessive use of force and violence triggered nationwide peaceful demonstrations demanding justice, liberty, and peace. One of their other demands was the removal of president Daniel Ortega and vice president Rosario Murillo from office.

During the last eight months, the Nicaraguan government’s repression has resulted in grave human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial killings, torture, intimidation, repression and criminalization of the demonstrators and the social movement they represent, among more.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), as of June 19, documented that “the repressive action of the State has led to at least 212 deaths, 1,337 wounded persons and 507 political prisoners” while “hundreds of persons at risk of being victims of attacks, harassment, threats and other forms of intimidation.” By July 7, the Nicaraguan Association Pro-Human Rights had reported 351 deaths. Nicaraguan news outlets further estimate 30,000 have fled and sought asylum in Costa Rica alone. Other numbers of asylum seekers are unknown, but many have also fled to neighboring Honduras or the United States.

Repression of protestors

Amnesty International documented the use of excessive force against student protestors by the police, who were working alongside irregular para-police forces, which were following a “shoot to kill” directive.

On May 28, students in Managua were attacked by parapolice groups and anti-riot forces of the State using bullets, tear gas and mortar shells. Shortly after, an attack on the peaceful demonstration, “March of the Mothers” on May 30  resulted in more than 17 deaths across the country, with dozens more injured. During this same day, several buildings were set on fire.

While the government had announced the creation of the Verification and Security Commission (CVS) to peacefully negotiate the removal of barricades used by the protestors as a defense mechanism for attacks by the military forces, only two of the cities with the barricades were removed by peaceful means through the commission. Thus, mid-June to early July consisted of Operation for Peace, colloquially referred to as Operation Clean-Up by civil society, which served to destroy the barricades through  lethal force and direct confrontation with protestors.

On October 14, the government kidnapped dozens of leaders from the “Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco,” a coalition of different organisms and citizens who demand democracy, justice, and liberty, while violently assaulting protestors who were gathered in a peaceful protest. Among those detained and assaulted were human rights defenders, leaders in NGOs, as well as members of civil society.

Throughout the repression, protestors also suffer from limited access to hospitals or medical care, as any doctor or surgeon who operates or helps a protestor with a wound could be classified as aiding “terrorism.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has further reported that “excessive force was used in violation of the principles of necessity and proportionality as required by international law and standards to make the use of force legal.”

Criminalization of Protests

In order to criminalize protests, the Nicaraguan government has labeled any person who partakes in a protest to be a “terrorist” or a “coup plotter.” Furthermore, student activists share that even wearing the national flag around their shoulders has incited police repression.   

This first-step of criminalization is noted by the National Police’s September 28, 2018 press release (115-2018), which qualifies demonstrations of public protest as illegal because protests have allegedly caused violent acts to arise and its organizers must be held legally responsible.

To exacerbate criminalization, on October 13, 2018, the National Police issued a new note (116-2018) establishing that any mobilization must be approved by the police authorities. The police reiterated that “any action that violates the right of Nicaraguan families to Peace and Life and recalls that any provocative, instigating and violent activity will be punished according to the Political Constitution and Laws of Nicaragua.”

The IACHR called on the Nicaraguan State to immediately cease the repression of demonstrators and the arbitrary detention of those who participate in the protests, as it is a core right to participate in a democratic system, which inevitably include social tools such as protesting and demonstrations.  

Furthermore, this criminalization allows for the use of lethal force and excuses blatant repressive behavior as an issue of public order.

Attack on the Press and NGOs

On December 14, the Nicaraguan government raided the offices of one of the most emblematic human rights organizations, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) along with several other organizations. In these raids, they seized assets, personal property, registries, among more. Many of these organizations were also stripped of their legal status by lawmakers in Congress.

The police forces also attacked and seized offices of the nation’s leading independent media organizations including Confidencial, Revista Niú, Esta Semana y Esta Noche, violating fourteen amendments of the Nicaraguan Constitution, along with international law. Most recently, on December 21, paramilitary forces forcibly broke into the offices of 100% Noticias, a media organization in Nicaragua and took their director, Miguel Mora. They additionally stopped the airtime of Channel 9, 10, and 11 as they were transmitting the news of the break-in.

On December 19, the Special Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) and visits from the CIDH (Inter American Commission for Human Rights) were temporarily suspended by the Nicaraguan government.

This violent attack on the media and NGOs is another example that the government will not step down in its terror-inducing agenda towards opposition.

As a response to this latest attack on the press, on December 15, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Central America, Michelle Bachelet called for the government of Nicaragua to cease the siege against civil society and the press.

The OAS (Organization of American States) further concluded that “the State of Nicaragua has not fulfilled its international obligations to respect, protect and ensure human rights” in the context of the social protest.

While Nicaraguan activists and civil society are undergoing and experiencing paralyzing repression, their constant demands for peaceful change need to be ultimately heard. Campaigns like AUN’s #NavidadSinPresosPoliticos represent yet another effort made by university students and civil society to demand that their human rights be respected. As an international community, those demands should be supported to ensure that the call for justice is heard.

By Jalileh Garcia

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