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Human Rights Watch Letter to President Sánchez of Spain

June 10, 2021

 

H.E. Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón

President of the Government of Spain

La Moncloa

Aven

Madrid, 28071

Spain

 

Dear President Sánchez,

I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch in advance of your upcoming trip to Central America to urge you to call on the region’s leaders to respect human rights, the rule of law, and judicial independence, and to take action to end violence and discrimination against marginalized groups.

Lawlessness, corruption, impunity, discrimination, and violence drive hundreds of thousands to flee El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua every year. But the region’s leaders continue to undermine the rule of law in an effort to further concentrate power. And they show little interest in protecting marginalized groups.

Your trip provides a unique opportunity to discuss the root causes of forced displacement in Central America. Below is an outline of Human Rights Watch’s findings on the human rights situation in the Northern Triangle countries and Nicaragua, which we hope will inform your upcoming discussions.

El Salvador

Since taking office, President Nayib Bukele has sought to concentrate power by undermining democratic institutions. On May 1, 2021, the first day that the ruling party took power with a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Assembly, Bukele’s allies voted to summarily remove and replace the judges in the constitutional chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court, as well as the Attorney General—a frontal attack on judicial independence.[1] Over the past year, Bukele publicly defied rulings by the constitutional chamber, including on enforcement of pandemic regulations, lashing out against judges.[2]

President Bukele appears to be increasingly relying on security forces for politically charged actions that distort ordinary legal processes. In February 2020, he entered the plenary hall of the Legislative Assembly with armed soldiers to intimidate legislators into approving a loan for security forces.[3] A few months later, he deployed police officers to block prosecutors’ access to the Health Ministry, while they were investigating government corruption allegations during the pandemic.[4] 

The Bukele administration has restricted government transparency and accountability, including by weakening the role of the Access to Public Information Agency and dissolving one of the agencies responsible for oversight of public spending.[5] On May 5, the Legislative Assembly passed legislation that grants “immunity” to government officials for any criminal and administrative charges related to Covid-19 policies.[6] Public access to information is also at risk due to the government’s hostile attitude towards the independent press, which includes having launched criminal investigations against journalists.[7]

In addition, on June 4, the new Attorney General announced the end of its cooperation agreements with the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador, a body backed by the Organization of American States (OAS) to fight corruption in the country since 2019.[8] The announcement appears to be an attempt to halt investigations into senior government officials over allegations of irregular purchases of equipment used to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people remain targets of homophobic and transphobic violence, including from police and gangs, leading to internal displacement and international emigration.[9] Despite this, President Bukele has walked back initiatives put in place under the previous government to promote LGBT inclusion. In June 2019, Bukele dissolved the Directorate of Sexual Diversity that trained government employees, including police officers, on questions of sexual orientation and gender identity, and conducted research on LGBT issues.

We urge you to call on the Salvadoran government to respect judicial independence and the separation of powers, including much-needed credible investigations on corruption, to refrain from attacking freedom of expression, and to uphold the rights of marginalized groups.

Guatemala

Since former President Jimmy Morales declined to renew the mandate of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), investigations have slowed, undermining accountability. The government of President Alejandro Giammattei has failed to ensure that prosecutors, including the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), have sufficient resources to conduct timely and thorough investigations in high-profile cases and those dealing with attacks on journalists.

President Giammattei and his coalition in the Guatemalan Congress are working to remove the last few independent judges and replace them with allies in an apparent effort to halt an anti-corruption drive that has implicated many senior politicians. In 2020, pro-government legislators tried, unsuccessfully, to have criminal charges pressed against members of the Constitutional Court because they disliked its rulings.[10] In April of this year, when new members of the court were elected through a process that includes nominations from academics and civil society, they refused to swear in the well-respected anti-corruption fighter Gloria Porras, who had been re-elected to her position by the academic community.[11] Meanwhile, the new members of the court (without Porras) will soon rule on whether to completely dissolve FECI, tasked with investigating corruption cases, an institution which Giammattei has criticized.[12]

Legislators are also attempting to block funding to the country’s human rights ombudsman, whom they have tried to remove from office several times,[13] in reprisal for his promotion of sexual and reproductive rights, including LGBT rights. Guatemala has failed to guarantee the rights and safety of vulnerable groups, including LGBT people, which contributes to harm and leads people to flee the country as a result of hate crimes, other forms of persecution,[14] and gang-related violence.

President Giammattei has targeted the press with false accusations, including for its coverage of the pandemic, and has continued to harass independent media.[15] In addition, Congress has passed a law that allows the government to restrict non-governmental organizations’ funding and disband those it accuses of “disturbing public order.”[16] The newly appointed Constitutional Court has rejected challenges to the law.[17]

We hope that, during your visit, you will urge President Giammattei to show respect for judicial independence, the critical role that the independent media and human rights defenders play in democratic societies, and the importance of addressing violence and discrimination against marginalized groups.

Honduras

In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández—accused by US prosecutors of working with drug trafficking organizations—and his party have been working to take control of the justice system since gaining control of the executive and legislative branches of government in 2009.

In 2012, when the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled against a government plan to reform the police, pro-government legislators improperly removed and replaced four of the five judges in the chamber. Since then, the court has repeatedly ruled in favor of the government. In 2015, the court voted to repeal the constitutional ban on re-election and allow President Hernández to seek a second term as president, which he won.[18] Finally, in 2016, the Supreme Court dissolved the Judiciary Council, the governing body of the entire Honduran judicial system. Since then, the head of the Supreme Court has complete power to select, appoint, dismiss, or discipline all judges in Honduras.[19] 

LGBT people in Honduras regularly face violence and discrimination from gangs, civilian and military police, members of the public, and their own families.[20] They also face extortion by gangs and discrimination in schools and the workplace. These abuses force many LGBT people to flee their homes, both internally and to seek asylum abroad. Until now, Honduras has failed to comply with recommendations the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued in 2018 on upholding the rights and improving the security of LGBT people.[21]

We urge you to call on President Hernández to respect the independence of the judiciary, and to take concrete action to protect LGBT Hondurans from violence. 

Nicaragua

President Daniel Ortega, who has been in power since 2007 and is seeking reelection for a fourth term, has intensified state repression as Nicaragua approaches the November 7, 2021, presidential elections. In the past week, the police have arrested four opposition presidential candidates using spurious criminal investigations.[22] These high-profile arrests, and other serious human rights abuses documented by Human Rights Watch, including arbitrary detentions and harassment of government critics, appear to be part of a broader strategy to suppress dissent, instill fear, and restrict political participation.

President Ortega, who controls all branches of government, has also used his majority in the National Assembly to adopt repressive legislation in recent months that severely undermines basic rights and the rule of law.[23] These laws violate due process under international human rights law and could be used to deter critical speech, restrict freedom of assembly, give a legal veneer to arbitrary detentions, inhibit opposition participation in elections, and keep critics in prison without bringing formal charges to prevent or limit their political participation.

Furthermore, on May 4, the National Assembly approved an electoral reform that consolidates the government’s control over the electoral process and appears designed to further favor President Ortega, including by not requiring international electoral observation and codifying new grounds for excluding candidates.[24] On the same day, the National Assembly appointed the new members of the Supreme Electoral Council (Consejo Supremo Electoral, CSE), naming only members who had been nominated by the FSLN or its allies and none nominated by opposition parties or civil society groups. [25] It also failed to consult civil society groups about the nomination process, despite the fact that it is required to do so by law. Shortly afterwards, the CSE adopted a resolution stripping the Democratic Restoration Party (Partido de Restauración Democrática, PRD)—the party representing the civic and political movements that form the opposition National Coalition—of its legal registration. The PRD is now prohibited from participating in the upcoming presidential elections.

Under these conditions, it is impossible for Nicaraguans to exercise their political rights in free and fair elections.

A brutal crackdown in 2018 by the National Police and armed pro-government groups left over 300 dead and 2,000 injured, and resulted in hundreds of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions. The Ortega government has continued to bring criminal cases against protesters and critics. Impunity for human rights abuses by the police continues.[26]

We urge you to call on Nicaragua’s authorities to respect fundamental rights of opposition activists, free those detained for peaceful criticism of the government and opposition leaders, repeal abusive legislation, and ensure Nicaraguans can fully exercise their political rights in free and fair elections with proper international observation.

We hope that this letter can serve as a basis for a constructive dialogue on these important matters with Central American leaders. We remain at your disposal to discuss our findings regarding country conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

 

Sincerely,

 

Dr. José Miguel Vivanco

Human Rights Watch

 

 

[1] “The U.S. can stop El Salvador’s slide to authoritarianism. Time to act,” Human Rights Watch Commentary, May 21, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/21/us-can-stop-el-salvadors-slide-authoritarianism-time-act

[2] “El Salvador: President Defies Supreme Court,” Human Rights Watch Press Release, April 17, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/17/el-salvador-president-defies-supreme-court

[3] “President Bukele, Brute Force Is Not the Way Forward for El Salvador,” Human Rights Watch Commentary, February 14, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/02/14/president-bukele-brute-force-not-way-forward-el-salvador

[4] “El día en que la Policía obstaculizó la investigación del Fiscal contra el Gobierno Bukele,” El Faro, November 11, 2020, https://elfaro.net/es/202011/el_salvador/24990/El-d%C3%ADa-en-que-la-Polic%C3%ADa-obstaculiz%C3%B3-la-investigaci%C3%B3n-del-Fiscal-contra-el-Gobierno-Bukele.htm

[5] “El Salvador: Broad Powers Limit Accountability,” Human Rights Watch Press Release, June 9, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/06/09/el-salvador-broad-powers-limit-accountability

[6] “Asamblea otorga inmunidad a funcionarios de Bukele por compras durante la pandemia,” El Faro, May 5, 2021, https://elfaro.net/es/202105/el_salvador/25462/Asamblea-otorga-inmunidad-a-funcionarios-de-Bukele-por-compras-durante-la-pandemia.htm

[7] “Bukele’s Legislative Victory Threatens Press Freedom in El Salvador,” Human Rights Watch Commentary, March 17, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/17/bukeles-legislative-victory-threatens-press-freedom-el-salvador

[8] “El Salvador: Bukele rompe convenio con la CICIES de la OEA,” AP, June 5, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/noticias-6c2a8002d6528b86b8b3f10e4ae0f94e

[9] “Every Day I Live in Fear. Violence and Discrimination Against LGBT People in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and Obstacles to Asylum in the United States,” Human Rights Watch Report, October 7, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/10/07/every-day-i-live-fear/violence-and-discrimination-against-lgbt-people-el-salvador

[10] “Guatemala: Congress Assaulting Judicial Independence,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 17, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/17/guatemala-congress-assaulting-judicial-independence.

[11] Lorena Arroyo, “Gloria Porras: “Me preocupa cómo en Guatemala están utilizando las leyes para alcanzar objetivos aviesos,” El Pais, April 13, 2021, https://elpais.com/internacional/2021-04-14/gloria-porras-me-preocupa-como-en-guatemala-estan-utilizando-las-leyes-para-alcanzar-objetivos-aviesos.html?ssm=TW_CC.

[12] César Pérez Marroquín Y Douglas Cuevas, “CC da trámite a acción de inconstitucionalidad que busca eliminar acuerdo que dio vida a la Feci,” Prensa Libre, https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/justicia/cc-da-tramite-a-accion-de-inconstitucionalidad-que-busca-eliminar-acuerdo-que-dio-vida-a-la-feci-breaking/ (accessed June 4, 2021).

[13] “Guatemala: Rights Official at Risk of Dismissal,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 22, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/22/guatemala-rights-official-risk-dismissal.

[14] Human Rights Watch, “’Every Day I Live in Fear’: Violence and Discrimination Against LGBT People in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and Obstacles to Asylum in the United States, October 7, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/10/07/every-day-i-live-fear/violence-and-discrimination-against-lgbt-people-el-salvador.

[15] “Guatemala: Free Press Under Attack,” Human Rights Watch Press Release, February 18, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/18/guatemala-free-press-under-attack.

[16] Sofia Menchu, “Guatemala's top court backs controversial NGO law, overturns past ruling,” Reuters, May 12, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/guatemalas-top-court-backs-controversial-ngo-law-overturns-past-ruling-2021-05-13/ (accessed June 4, 2021).

[17] Sonia Pérez, “Guatemala: Corte da vía libre a ley que controla a las ONG,” AP News, May 13, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/noticias-9e9baf589def4e67e83d2535caed6ade.

[18] Juan Carlos Bow, “Honduras modifica su Constitución para permitir la reelección,” El País, 23 April 2015, https://elpais.com/internacional/2015/04/24/actualidad/1429839601_867027.html

[19] UN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and Lawyers, Visit to Honduras, 2 June 2020, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/A_HRC_44_47_Add.2_E.pdf

[20] Human Rights Watch, “’Every Day I Live in Fear’: Violence and Discrimination Against LGBT People in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and Obstacles to Asylum in the United States, October 7, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/10/07/every-day-i-live-fear/violence-and-discrimination-against-lgbt-people-el-salvador.

[21] Letter from Paulo Abrão, Executive Secretary, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to Pablo Saavedra Alessandri, Secretary, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, 30 April 2019, https://www.oas.org/es/cidh/decisiones/corte/2019/13051NdeREs.pdf

[22] “Opinion: Daniel Ortega takes a sledgehammer to the opposition,” Washington Post, June 7, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/daniel-ortega-takes-a-sledgehammer-to-the-opposition/2021/06/07/f90b3862-c7ab-11eb-a11b-6c6191ccd599_story.html; “Policía Nacional informa sobre detención de Félix Maradiaga,” 19 Digital, June 8, 2021, https://www.el19digital.com/articulos/ver/titulo:116908-policia-nacional-informa-sobre-detencion-de-felix-maradiaga 

[23] “Nicaragua: Ortega Tightening Authoritarian Grip,” Human Rights Watch Press Release, October 8, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/08/nicaragua-ortega-tightening-authoritarian-grip; “Nicaragua: Law Threatens Free, Fair Elections,” Human Rights Watch Press Release, December 22, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/22/nicaragua-law-threatens-free-fair-elections

[24] Reform and Addition Law to Law Nº. 331, Electoral Law (Ley de Reforma y Adición a la Ley Nº. 331, Ley Electoral), National Assembly, Law No. 1070, May 4, 2021, http://legislacion.asamblea.gob.ni/Normaweb.nsf/9e314815a08d4a6206257265005d21f9/4fca1b711015f9af062586ce00762351?OpenDocument

[25] “The FSLN Retains Control over the Electoral Council and Establishes Reforms against the Opposition” (“El FSLN retiene el control del Consejo Electoral e impone reformas contra la oposición”), Expediente Público, May 5, 2021, https://expedientepublico.org/el-fsln-retiene-el-control-del-consejo-electoral-e-impone-reformas-contra-la-oposicion/

[26] Human Rights Watch, Crackdown in Nicaragua: Torture, Ill-Treatment, and Prosecutions of Protesters and Opponents, June 19, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/06/19/crackdown-nicaragua/torture-ill-treatment-and-prosecutions-protesters-and

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