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Nicaragua: US Should Sanction President Ortega

Senators Call for Sanctions Against Top Officials Implicated in Crackdown

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega speaks next to first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo during the inauguration ceremony of a highway overpass in Managua, Nicaragua, Thursday, March 21, 2019. Ortega's government and opposition began negotiating Thursday how to carry out the release of hundreds of political prisoners arrested in the past year of unrest, after the government announced Wednesday it would free the prisoners within 90 days in exchange for the lifting of external sanctions.  © 2019 AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga

(Washington, DC) – The Trump administration should impose sanctions on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and other top officials implicated in the brutal crackdown on protests that began in April 2018, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 10, 2019, US Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, sent a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing concern about ongoing abuses and impunity in Nicaragua. A brutal crackdown by the Nicaraguan National Police and heavily armed pro-government groups has left more than 300 people dead and more than 2,000 injured. The lawmakers identified nine Nicaraguan officials, including Ortega, who they say should be considered for US government sanctions.

“President Ortega and other top officials in Nicaragua feel they can get away with committing egregious abuses without facing any consequences,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Additional US sanctions are key to increasing the pressure on Ortega’s government to curb abuses and restore basic human rights guarantees in Nicaragua.”

In July and November 2018, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on five Nicaraguans implicated in corruption or the crackdown on protesters, under Executive Orders 13818 and 13851 respectively, which expand upon the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (Global Magnitsky Act). The Global Magnitsky Act allows the US president to block or revoke visas or impose property sanctions on foreign individuals or entities responsible for gross violations of human rights or who are complicit in acts of “significant corruption.”

Those placed under sanctions in 2018 included Vice President Rosario Murillo and Francisco Díaz, chief of the National Police. Díaz is believed to have exercised significant control over the force first as deputy director and in his current position.

In December, Congress adopted the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption Act (NICA Act), which granted the US Treasury Department the authority to impose targeted sanctions on current or former Nicaraguan officials, or people acting on behalf of the government, who are responsible for human rights abuses and corruption. The sanctions could include freezing assets held in the US, forbidding entry to the country, and revoking US visas.

The law requires the US State Department to submit a report to congressional committees on the participation of Nicaraguan senior officials in human rights abuses, corruption, and money laundering within six months, or by June 19. It had not been submitted by the date the senators sent their letter.

Senators Menendez and Cruz asked the State Department to include information on the role in human rights violations and corruption of the following individuals in its upcoming report:

  • President Daniel Ortega, who is supreme chief of the National Police and has sweeping powers, including to “command” the police and to dismiss police chiefs when they disobey his orders;
  • Retired General Aminta Granera, former National Police chief, who was the head of the force until Díaz replaced her;
  • General Ramon Avellán, deputy National Police chief, who acted as the highest-ranking member of the National Police in Masaya, where police and armed pro-government gangs brutally repressed protesters;
  • General Jaime Vanegas, the National Police inspector general, who is required under Nicaraguan law to investigate alleged rights violations by police officers and sanction those responsible;
  • General Luis Pérez Olivas, chief of the Directorate of Judicial Assistance (DAJ, also known as El Chipote), which is the “main place” where authorities perpetrated egregious abuses against anti-government demonstrators, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has said;
  • General Justo Pastor Urbina, chief of the Department of Special Operations (DOEP, by its Spanish acronym), which played a “central role” in the repression throughout the country, according to the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR);
  • Julio Guillermo Orozco, director general of the national penitentiary system;
  • Darling Morales Duarte, director of the Tipitapa “Jorge Navarro” Penitentiary, known as “La Modelo;” and
  • Donald Pérez Gray, director of the maximum-security area at La Modelo prison.

A Human Rights Watch report released in June, “Crackdown in Nicaragua,” found many of those detained in the context of anti-government protests had been subjected to serious abuses, in some cases amounting to torture – including electric shocks, severe beatings, asphyxiation, rape, and pulling out their fingernails. Some were reportedly denied medical care in public health centers. Detainees were also prosecuted in cases marred by serious due process violations.

Not a single police officer is known to be under investigation. President Ortega has promoted top officials who bear responsibility for the abuses, rather than holding them to account. A broad amnesty law for crimes committed in the context of anti-government protests came into force in June. There is a serious risk that the law will be used to protect officers responsible for serious abuses in the country from prosecution, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the Interior Ministry, 492 people jailed in the context of anti-government protests were released between February and June 10. But 78 percent of them were conditionally released with charges still pending against them.

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