Vilma Núñez, director of the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (Cenidh). In the midst of the political crisis in Nicaragua, the government has begun to take action against human rights organizations, including Cenidh. 

© 2018 Carlos Herrera/Getty Images
(Washington, D.C.) – The government of President Daniel Ortega is doubling down in its effort to silence dissent, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 19, 2018, Foreign Affairs Minister Denis Moncada expelled from Nicaragua the Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), two bodies linked to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. On the same day, a police official leveled dangerous allegations against Vilma Nuñez, the most prominent human rights defender in the country and the president of the respected Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.

“Ortega's government seems determined to silence dissent and expel any observers who could bear witness to its oppression,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments in the Americas should condemn these renewed attacks on human rights scrutiny in Nicaragua and express their undivided support for its journalists and human rights defenders.”

The Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned the representatives of both international human rights bodies on December 19. When they arrived, Moncada announced that their mandates were “temporarily suspended.” The GIEI had prepared to issue a report on December 20 assessing the government’s efforts to prosecute those responsible for grave human rights violations connected to the crackdown against protests in the country that started in April. All staff members of both groups left the country on December 20.

Moncada sent a letter to the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, stating that the Nicaraguan government had acted in “good faith” while MESENI and GIEI had behaved with an “interventionist attitude” in the country. Moncada contended that the experts had “contravened” Nicaraguan law by interviewing victims and requesting information from human rights groups. Only the Attorney General’s Office is legally empowered to investigate crimes in the country, Moncada said.

On the same day, Police General Luis Pérez Oliva said that Núñez and Gonzalo Carrión, two prominent figures in the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), had “cover[ed] up for the real criminals” responsible for an arson fire that killed four adults and two children in Managua on June 16. Survivors of the fire blamed the police and armed pro-government groups in social media videos and interviews with the press. A witness told Human Rights Watch that policemen and armed pro-government groups first shot at community members and then at 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 the first responders.

Pérez Oliva said at a news conference that Núñez had “instigated survivors” to “accuse the government of Nicaragua and the National Police” by offering them visas to Costa Rica and the United States. Pérez Oliva also said that Carrión, CENIDH chief counsel, had made “fake statements,” accusing the National Police of the arson.

Núñez is the founder and president of the prestigious 28-year-old CENIDH, which has played an essential role in documenting abuses and supporting victims in Nicaragua. For decades, Núñez has been a tireless advocate for human rights and a central figure in Nicaraguan civil society. She has assisted hundreds of victims in their demands for justice, including Zoilamérica Narváez, the daughter of Vice President Rosario Murillo, who in 1998 accused Ortega of having raped her when she was a child.

Carrión has for years been in charge of coordinating a team of human rights lawyers who provide free legal assistance to victims of human rights violations.

On December 12, Congress stripped the group of its legal registration, accusing it of engaging in an “attempted coup.” On the night of December 13, police officers raided its office in Managua, confiscating documents and computers. Police are still occupying the office and staff members have not been allowed in.

“The Ortega administration has shown that its efforts to suppress criticism in the country have no limits,” Vivanco said. “We fear that Vilma Nuñez, a symbol of human rights defense in Nicaragua, will be its next target, and urge governments in the Americas to urgently press the Ortega administration to leave her be.”