Riot police officers stand in front of a graffiti that reads "Justice" during a protest against Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega's government in Managua, Nicaragua May 28, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – The Organization of American States’ (OAS) member countries should strongly call on President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua to dismantle pro-government armed gangs and cease abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The ambassadors to the regional body will meet on June 22, 2018, for a session of the Permanent Council dedicated to discussing serious abuses in Nicaragua documented by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Since protests broke out on April 18, at least 187 people have been killed and over 1,500 have been injured. Policemen and pro-government armed gangs are responsible for the vast majority of those deaths and injuries, according to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. Abuses have dramatically increased over the past month: human rights groups reported at least 95 people have been killed since the beginning of June.

“As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights presents its findings in Washington, policemen and pro-government armed gangs are killing protesters with total impunity in the streets of Nicaragua,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Democratic leaders in the Americas should urgently call on President Ortega to end the bloodbath in the country and dismantle pro-government gangs.”

After a visit to the country in May, the IACHR found that police officers have often employed excessive force against protesters and supported abusive pro-government groups. The commission found evidence of a range of abuses, including arbitrary detention, cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees, and attacks on journalists.

On June 5, during the OAS General Assembly in Washington, DC, member countries condemned the “acts of violence, intimidation, and threats directed against the general public” in Nicaragua and expressed their condolences to the victims.

“During its previous discussion on Nicaragua, the OAS members failed to call out the government’s responsibility for the abuses – it was almost as if they were describing a natural catastrophe,” Vivanco said. “But the crisis in Nicaragua merits a much stronger and clearer response from leaders across the Americas.”

On June 16, six people, including a 2-year-old girl and a 5-month-old baby boy, died when their house was set on fire in Managua. The government blamed protesters, but survivors told the media that policemen and men in civilian clothing who accompanied them were responsible for the arson. “We were in our room because we were afraid the police and the other men with them were going to shoot us, they burned us to drive us out like animals,” a survivor told local news media.

A witness told Human Rights Watch that policemen and men apparently belonging to pro-government groups shot at community members and first responders after they removed the bodies from the house. Human Rights Watch reviewed footage taken by a firefighter fleeing the scene as police started shooting at them.

At least 838 people have been detained in connection with the protests since April 18, according to the IACHR and data provided by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). The IACHR found that many of these detentions were arbitrary. Many detainees told rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, that police abused them while they were in detention.

Pro-government groups have abducted several people, and handed some to police authorities news media reported.

A 20-year-old student whose name is being withheld for his protection told Human Rights Watch that in late May armed men dressed in black forced him onto a truck as he was walking to a grocery store in Managua. The men held him for eight days blindfolded, with his hands and feet tied. They threatened to kill him and hit him with their guns, he said, and forced him to say in front of a camera that he had committed numerous acts of vandalism.

The men then handed him to police officers in El Chipote – the police holding cells in Managua – in the middle of the night, he said. He said that police kept him locked in a cell naked for a week, and that for four consecutive days they took him out only to beat him. He said that he was not taken before a judge or allowed to see a lawyer. His mother repeatedly asked El Chipote authorities whether he was being held there, but policemen denied it, she told Human Rights Watch. Neither the student nor his mother knew why he had been targeted.

“Policemen and pro-government groups are working together in Nicaragua to abuse and terrorize the population,” Vivanco said. “Unless the democratic leaders in the Americas strongly condemn the abuses by the Nicaraguan government, victims of these egregious abuses may never have their day in court.”