A person is arrested by riot police during a protest against the government of President Daniel Ortega in Managua, on October 14, 2018.

© 2018 INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images
(Washington, DC) – United States President Donald Trump should move quickly to sign into law a bill that will allow targeted sanctions against top Nicaraguan officials and others implicated in egregious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today. The legislation will create a powerful tool to press the Ortega-Murillo government to end its pattern of abuse against opponents.

On December 11, 2018, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), a bipartisan bill that allows the US Treasury Department to sanction any non-US person implicated in egregious human rights abuses and corruption in Nicaragua. The bill would allow for freezing assets held in the US, forbidding entry to the US, and revoking US visas. The Senate passed the bill on November 27.

“This bi-partisan legislation can play a very important role in pressing the Ortega-Murillo government to stop its brutal repression of opponents,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It is now critical to move forward with its enactment and implementation to send a powerful message that Nicaragua’s crackdown with impunity on the government’s opponents will no longer be tolerated.”

Under the NICA Act, the US Treasury Department would have the power to sanction “any foreign person, including any current or former official of the Government of Nicaragua or any person acting on behalf of that Government” whom the US president determines has been involved in “significant acts of violence or conduct that constitutes an abuse or violation of human rights against persons associated with the protests in Nicaragua that began on April 18, 2018.”

Other activities that could lead to sanctions include the arrest or prosecution of a person or media outlet “primarily because of the legitimate exercise by such person of the freedom of speech, assembly, or the press,” “significant actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions,” and “acts of significant corruption.”

The law defines “involvement” in these activities in various ways, including responsibility for “ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing” the actions, having “knowingly participated” in them “directly or indirectly,” or being the leader of an institution implicated in them.

Since April, 325 people have been killed and 2,000 injured in Nicaragua during a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters, according to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). The commission found that the National Police of Nicaragua and armed pro-government groups, which acted in coordination with the police, are responsible for most deaths and injuries.

Police and these groups have also abducted or arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people across the country. Over 300 remain arbitrarily detained, the commission said in November, including many who were charged with grave crimes like “terrorism” in connection with their alleged involvement in anti-government protests. Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which detainees were beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks or raped.

President Daniel Ortega, who under Nicaraguan law is the “supreme chief” of police, has rewarded top officials who bear responsibility for the bloodbath. Not a single police officer or member of an armed pro-government group has been brought to justice for these abuses.

The pressing need for legislation that allows for targeted sanctions is highlighted not only by the egregious violations and overwhelming impunity, but also the government’s concerted effort to silence nongovernmental groups and critical media outlets. On December 12, Nicaragua’s National Assembly, controlled by Ortega’s party, arbitrarily cancelled the legal registration of the country’s most prominent human rights organization, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH).

The US government already sanctioned three Nicaraguan officials in July for their responsibility in the crackdown and involvement in acts of corruption under Executive Order 13818 “Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption,” which expands upon the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In late November, Trump signed a new executive order specific to Nicaragua, enabling the US Treasury Department to sanction two additional Nicaraguans.

The officials sanctioned for their involvement in the crackdown are Vice-President Rosario Murillo, who is Ortega’s wife; General Francisco Díaz, the police chief; Fidel Moreno Briones, a political appointee in the Managua mayor’s office; and Néstor Moncada Lau, a top presidential aide. Others have been sanctioned for their participation in corruption schemes.

In addition to sanctions, the NICA Act instructs US executive directors in various international financial institutions to use “the voice, vote, and influence of the United States” to oppose loans or financial or technical assistance to the Nicaraguan government for projects in Nicaragua.

Within 90 days of the law’s enactment, the US president is required to brief Congressional committees on the government’s strategy to engage with civil society in Nicaragua and to adopt measures to support the protection of human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists.