(Washington, DC) - The Nicaraguan government should take steps to ensure that human rights defenders are free to promote and protect women's rights without harassment or intimidation, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since beginning a campaign against a newly enacted absolute ban on abortion in 2006, women's rights advocates have been subject to official investigations into their work, and some have reported suffering acts of intimidation from unknown sources.
In the past year, nine women's rights advocates have been the subject of a criminal investigation into whether, among other things, they conspired to cover up the crime of rape in the case of a 9-year-old rape victim known as "Rosita," who obtained an abortion in Nicaragua in 2003.
"While authorities should seek to get to the bottom of any case of child abuse, it is crucial that criminal investigations not be misused as retaliation for legitimate efforts to promote fundamental rights," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
Since 2006, Nicaraguan law has barred even therapeutic abortions, which are undertaken when the health of the mother is at risk. Blanket abortion bans like Nicaragua's are incompatible with international human rights law, including the protections it provides for the rights to life, health, and nondiscrimination.
Investigations have been also been undertaken into the financing of the organizations of some of the same women's rights advocates subjected to the criminal inquiry in the "Rosita" case. In early October 2008, Nicaraguan authorities raided the offices of the Communications Research Center (CINCO) and the Autonomous Women's Movement (MAM), confiscating files and computers containing financial records. The search warrant did not specifically state what suspected violations underpin the investigation and contained only a reference to allegations concerning "irregular and unusual operations with funds coming from foreign sources." In September, El 19, a state print media outlet highlighted on the presidential homepage, claimed that there had been improper financial collaboration between CINCO and MAM because the latter group is not a registered nongovernmental organization (NGO). The newspaper also accused the groups of violating the law through the "promotion of abortion," adding that CINCO was not authorized to work on themes of "reproductive health and sexual orientation" (temas de Salud Reproductiva o de Opciones Sexuales).
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, director of CINCO, confirmed that his organization had cooperated with MAM, but denied wrongdoing, noting that CINCO is dedicated to issues of "culture, communication, and democratization" and has carried out partnerships with a variety of groups over its 13 years in operation.
Public statements by Nicaraguan authorities raise doubts as to the motives behind the investigations. In October, Armando Juárez, chief inspector of the Public Prosecutor's Office, suggested that promoting abortion rights could be construed as a crime, according to El Pueblo Presidente!, another state news site highlighted on the presidential homepage. Also this month, an article in El 19 concerning the CINCO and MAM investigations described the "promotion of abortion" as "a flag raised by Nicaraguan pseudo-feminists with the intention of obtaining millions in foreign funds."
Over the past two months, some women's rights defenders have reported being subjected to acts of intimidation, including threatening calls and acts of vandalism by unknown assailants. Earlier in October, Ana María Pizarro, a representative of MAM and one of the women's rights leaders being investigated in the "Rosita" case, reported receiving an anonymous telephone call insinuating that her 13-year-old son would be kidnapped. In September in the city of León, red and black paint - the colors of the governing party - was thrown on the house of human rights advocate Vilma Núñez, former vice-president of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court of Justice and current president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.
"It is vital that the government promptly and thoroughly investigate acts of intimidation and harassment and hold those responsible accountable," Vivanco said.