Riot policemen clear journalists, including Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro (C), from the surroundings of the 'Plaza El Sol' police station as he tried to speak to the National Police Senior Commissioner Francisco Diaz in Managua on December 15, 2018. - Nicaraguan police occupied the headquarters of opposition newspaper Confidencial and of civil and human rights organizations after they were stripped of their legal status, the affected denounced Saturday.

© 2018 INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images
(New York) – The government of President Daniel Ortega has begun a sweeping crackdown against the free press and activists in Nicaragua, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has shut down nine respected nongovernmental organizations and raided several of their offices.

Between November 29 and December 13, 2018, Congress stripped the nine groups of their legal registration, effectively forcing them to shut down. Congressman Filiberto Rodríguez of the ruling Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN) introduced the motions stripping them of registration at the request of the Interior Ministry. On the night of December 13, the National Police raided five of these organizations and the offices of an independent media outlet, confiscating many documents and computers.

“Ortega and Murillo’s administration has launched an offensive to silence those who still dare to expose its abuses and hold them to account,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Other countries should unequivocally condemn these attacks on free speech and assembly and stand in solidarity with journalists and human rights defenders, including by sending their ambassadors to visit the offices that have been raided.”

Police and armed pro-government groups have harassed, intimidated, brutally assaulted, and arbitrarily detained several journalists since April. Two foreign journalists have been summarily deported. State regulators have shut down critical news channels for days. Independent online outlets, including Confidencial, have been repeatedly subject to cyber-attacks.

On November 29, Congress cancelled the legal registration of the Information and Service Center for Health Counselling (CISAS), a 35-year-old organization dedicated to health education and HIV/AIDS prevention. Rodríguez told the media that the group was “participating in destabilizing activities against the government and Nicaraguan society” and that it should not have “taken part in protests.”

Three days earlier, immigration authorities summarily deported the group’s founder and director, Ana Quirós, a vocal feminist activist and critic of the Ortega administration who had become a Nicaraguan citizen after immigrating from Costa Rica. Quirós was also stripped of her Nicaraguan citizenship. She is now in Costa Rica.

On December 11, Congress cancelled the legal registration of the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP), an award-winning research center. Police had raided the group’s offices weeks earlier, confiscating many documents, and the authorities had frozen the organization’s bank accounts.

On September 24, the Attorney General's Office used a law that Congress had approved in July to accuse Félix Maradiaga – a chief opposition figure and director of the IEEPP – of “financing terrorism.” On September 5, Maradiaga had briefed the UN Security Council on the Nicaraguan government’s repression of opponents.

On December 12, Congress cancelled the legal registration of two other organizations it claimed were implicated in “an attempted coup,” an official news release said. One was the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), a prestigious 28-year-old human rights organization with international recognition whose lawyers and researchers have played an essential role supporting victims of the crackdown. The group’s director has repeatedly denounced government abuses in various international forums.

The other group closed was the Association for the Promotion of Democracy (HADEMOS), whose stated mission is to “strengthen the democratization process in Nicaragua and promote the sense of citizenship in political decision-making.” According to a Congress news release, the organization would have been used to “funnel funding for the commission of terrorist acts, for the training of groups of people who later participated in the destabilizing actions in the country.”

On December 13, Congress cancelled the legal registration of five more groups that had been critical of the Ortega administration. Congress said in a news release that it had shut the groups down because they had “performed activities to destabilize the country” and because of delays in their submission of financial reports.

In every case, the Interior Ministry asked Congress to shut down the organizations because they had “deviated from the purpose for which they had been created,” according to three official news releases issued by Congress. Under article 24 of Law 147, Congress can revoke legal registration of an organization if it “perform[s] activities that do not correspond to its mission statement.” This overbroad legislation enables the government to arbitrarily dissolve organizations that criticize it, Human Rights Watch said.

On the night of December 13 and 14, the National Police raided the offices of CENIDH, the Center for Investigation and Communication (CINCO) and three other organizations it had shut down, as well as those of Confidencial.

Both CINCO and Confidencial are led by an internationally recognized journalist, Carlos Chamorro, who has been a staunch critic of Ortega’s efforts to concentrate power over his three presidential terms and of his administration’s brutal crackdown on opponents. From Confidencial’s studio, where Chamorro also shoots two news TV shows, the police confiscated computers, hard drives and other journalism equipment, and numerous legal and accounting documents, a Confidencial journalist told Human Rights Watch.