04 August 2018, Nicaragua, Managua: Demonstration in support of doctors arbitrarily dismissed by the Nicaraguan Health Ministry authorities in apparent retaliation for participating in protests or otherwise disagreeing with government policy.

© 2018 Carlos Herrera/picture alliance via Getty Images

(New York) – Nicaraguan Health Ministry authorities have fired dozens of doctors and other health workers in apparent retaliation for participating in protests or otherwise disagreeing with government policy, Human Rights Watch said today. The dismissals follow government efforts to limit access for thousands of wounded anti-government protesters to medical treatment.

In recent weeks, the Nicaraguan Health Ministry authorities have fired at least 135 doctors, nurses and other health workers from several public hospitals across Nicaragua, according to the Nicaraguan Medical Association.

“After cracking down against protesters, the Ortega government is targeting everyone who dares question its power,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Dismissing the doctors is further proof the Ortega administration cares more about securing unchecked power than guaranteeing Nicaraguans’ basic rights.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 health workers who were fired from hospitals or health centers in the cities of Santa Teresa, Jinotepe, Diriamba, San Marcos, and León, and reviewed 10 of their dismissal letters. Nine of the letters had identical wording – despite being issued by authorities from different hospitals – and do not indicate the cause of dismissal. Eleven of the health workers interviewed had worked for the Health Ministry for over 20 years.

Javier Pastora, 55, was fired by the School Hospital Oscar Danilo Rosales Arguello in León on July 27. Pastora had worked for the Health Ministry for 32 years and was the hospital’s head of surgery and a teacher at the National University of Nicaragua in León. The hospital director, Judith Lejarza Vargas, called him to her office at 7 a.m. that day and gave him a dismissal letter, which lists no cause. When Pastora asked for an explanation, Vargas said his participation in protests made him an “unstable element” for the hospital, Pastora told Human Rights Watch. The hospital fired 13 other health workers that day.

On July 30, Vargas posted in Facebook that “there will be more doctors fired for being terrorists.” In an earlier post that day she said, “the medical students are participants in a coup and terrorists.” Government officials have repeatedly accused protesters of being terrorists. Only in July, the Prosecutor’s Office brought “terrorism” charges against at least 50 people and the National Police accused 16 others of the same crime in their official statements.

One of the doctors was fired from the Regional School Hospital of Jinotepe on August 1. He had worked for the Health Ministry for 20 years. The local head of the ministry met with him and other workers at 7 a.m., telling them that people who criticized the government could not work in the hospital, he and another doctor who attended the meeting told Human Rights Watch. At 11 a.m., the hospital’s deputy director, Álvaro Urroz, gave the doctor his dismissal letter but no explanation for his firing. On July 15, the doctor had treated protesters wounded by firearms. He told Human Rights Watch he believes he was dismissed for criticizing the government’s brutal response to the protests. “I cannot agree with so much barbarism,” he said.

In a visit to the country in May, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) received numerous complaints that public hospitals had denied care to wounded demonstrators. The rights body also documented cases in which public hospital authorities demanded that relatives of deceased protestors waived their right to file a complaint if they wanted to receive the remains of their relatives or their death certificate. The commission also identified people who chose not to seek care in public health centers out of mistrust or fear of reprisals.

A doctor from Carazo, in southwestern Nicaragua, told Human Rights Watch his superior from the Health Ministry told him the health center he directed should only attend “our people,” apparently referring to pro-government gangs. On July 8, about 20 armed members of those gangs arrived at the center and did not allow anyone else in, the doctor said. Eight wounded members of the gangs received medical attention, he said, but no protesters. The gang members left the hospital later that day.

Police have also restricted first responders’ access to gravely injured protesters. On the evening of July 13, armed pro-government gangs indiscriminately shot at the Divina Misericordia church, where 200 university students, doctors, and journalists had sought refuge. Police barred ambulances from approaching the church until 10:30 pm, when they allowed four injured people to be evacuated. The police did not break the barrier until approximately 9 a.m. the next day. According to the IACHR, two students were killed, and 16 people were injured in the attack on the church.

Since protests broke out on April 18, at least 317 people have been killed and over 2,000 have been injured, in most cases by police officers and pro-government armed gangs.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials forbids governments from employing excessive force against protesters and calls them to ensure that assistance and medical aid are provided at the earliest possible moment to anyone injured by law enforcement officials.

International law also guarantees the right to free expression and forbids governments from discriminating or retaliating against people because of their legitimate exercise of that right.

“The Nicaraguan government should immediately allow health workers to return to their jobs or else compensate them for these arbitrary dismissals,” Vivanco said. “Doctors should not be punished for meeting their duty to provide indiscriminate medical care to everyone who needs it.”