(Washington, DC) – The Ortega government’s intensifying campaign of violence and repression against the opposition and civil society in Nicaragua requires escalating involvement by the United Nations to address the situation, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 37-page report, “Critics Under Attack: Harassment and Detention of Opponents, Rights Defenders, and Journalists Ahead of Elections in Nicaragua,” found that in the run-up to presidential elections set for November 7, 2021, high-profile arrests and other serious human rights violations against critics appear to be part of a broader strategy to eliminate political competition, stifle dissent, and pave the way for President Daniel Ortega’s re-election to a fourth consecutive term. Between June 2 and 20, Nicaraguan authorities detained and opened seemingly politically motivated criminal investigations against five leading opposition presidential candidates and at least nine prominent government critics.
“The gravity and intensification of the Ortega government’s brutal crackdown on critics and members of the opposition in recent weeks requires a redoubling of international pressure,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It is essential for the UN secretary-general to build on existing UN action by bringing this situation to the attention of the Security Council.”
The Nicaraguan crisis has troubling regional dimensions. More than 108,000 Nicaraguans have been forced to flee their country since the 2018 crackdown, with two-thirds seeking refuge in neighboring Costa Rica, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities and needs of Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers.
Between January and June 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 53 people in Nicaragua by telephone, including 46 activists, lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders, and political opponents who were victims of harassment and/or had been subjected to arbitrary detention. We also reviewed photos and videos taken during arrests, as well as media reports and publications by local and international human rights organizations. On May 14, Human Rights Watch requested information from Nicaraguan authorities on the status of investigations into these types of cases, but it had not received a response at time of writing.
Ortega closely controls the security forces. Police officers – and, at times, members of the military – frequently station themselves outside the houses of government critics, preventing them from leaving their homes in circumstances that amount to arbitrary arrest, Human Rights Watch found. Many victims said they were unable to visit friends and family, attend meetings, go to work, or participate in protests or political activities. Some were unable to take their children to school or doctors’ appointments. Three women suffered sexual harassment and assault while being under arrest.
Some have been arbitrarily detained repeatedly, for periods ranging from several days to several months. Several detainees described abusive treatment in detention which, in at least two cases documented by Human Rights Watch, likely amounts to torture.
Nicaraguan rights groups report that 124 people perceived as critics remained arbitrarily detained as of June 2021. Many had been in prison for over a year.
Valeska Sandoval, a 22-year-old human rights activist and university student, was forced into a police vehicle without explanation on April 24, 2021. At El Chipote prison, she said, “two officers took me to a warehouse and tied my hands with wire to the ceiling, forcing me to stand with my hands stretched over my head.” An officer asked her “what she had said in the United States,” where she had unsuccessfully sought asylum before being deported back to Nicaragua. She told Human Rights Watch that anti-riot officers slapped her in her face, punched her in the stomach, and took her to a water tank. “They forced my head under water on and off over a period of 20 minutes,” she said. Upon release officers warned her: “The next time we see you, we are going to kill you.”
A UN spokesperson said on June 9 that Secretary-General António Guterres was “very concerned by the recent arrests and detentions, as well as the invalidation of candidacies of opposition leaders in Nicaragua.” In the spirit of his Call to Action on Human Rights, the secretary-general should invoke Article 99 of the UN Charter to raise this issue in the UN Security Council and present it as a growing crisis involving grave human rights abuses which could undermine stability in the region, Human Rights Watch said. UN Security Council members should also request briefings from both the secretary-general and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The Security Council last held a meeting on the worrying human rights situation in Nicaragua in September 2018, at the request of the United States. At that time, Human Rights Watch urged UN member countries to press Nicaragua to end its brutal crackdown on protesters, dismantle armed pro-government gangs, and hold perpetrators accountable.
The OHCHR has repeatedly condemned abuses in Nicaragua. In March, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution urging the government to “repeal or amend legislation that may unduly restrict the rights to the freedoms of expression and association, to privacy and to take part in the conduct of public affairs,” and to “adopt…electoral and institutional reforms to ensure free, fair, transparent, representative and credible elections in accordance with international standards, that include the presence of independent national and international electoral observers.”
President Ortega has been in power since 2007. In 2009, the Supreme Court of Justice issued a resolution allowing Ortega to circumvent a constitutional prohibition on re-election and run for a second term. Then, a constitutional amendment approved by his party, which controlled – and still controls – the National Assembly, abolished term limits in 2014, allowing him to run again in 2016. His administration exerts full control over every branch of government, including the judiciary and the Electoral Council.
Ortega has long relied on repression to stay in power. The National Police and armed pro-government groups brutally cracked down on protesters in 2018, arbitrarily arresting and prosecuting hundreds and leaving over 300 people dead and 2,000 injured. Serious human rights violations, including torture and killings, have gone unpunished.
The recent wave of arrests and harassment has been enabled by repressive new laws that violate due process under international human rights law and are being used to deter critical speech, give a legal veneer to arbitrary detentions, and keep critics in prison to prevent their political participation, Human Rights Watch said.
President Ortega has also used his majority in the National Assembly to approve electoral changes that prevent opposition candidates from participating in the elections. Additionally, the National Assembly appointed seven new members sympathetic to his party to the Supreme Electoral Council. On May 18, the Council banned the party that had functioned as the electoral vehicle of one of the two main opposition coalitions from participating in the November elections.
“There is virtually no chance Nicaraguans can exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, nor to vote and run for public office, if they are seen as opposing the ruling party,” Vivanco said. “Top UN officials and UN member countries that care about human rights have an opportunity to prevent a regional crisis by pressuring Ortega to end his repression now. They should seize it.”