(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council took a critical step on March 31, 2022, to promote justice for human rights violations in Nicaragua, Human Rights Watch said today.
The council adopted a resolution to establish a group of human rights experts on Nicaragua with a mandate to “conduct thorough and independent investigations into all alleged human rights violations” in the country since April 2018, including their structural root causes. The group is to provide recommendations to ensure that victims have access to justice. The resolution was presented by Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia, Canada, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Paraguay. It was approved by a vote of 20 to 7.
“The human rights crisis in Nicaragua demands robust international scrutiny,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With this resolution, the UN Human Rights Council has sent a clear message to President Ortega that the international community will not tolerate the government’s abuses.”
The government of Daniel Ortega has carried out a brutal crackdown on government critics and opponents with arbitrary arrests and prosecutions in the context of the November 2021 electoral process. In early March of 2022, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, presented a damming report to the council on the rights situation in Nicaragua. It outlines a “pattern of serious violations of civil and political rights” that arbitrarily suppressed dissenting opinions from the elections, and “created an environment unconducive to the holding of genuine, fair and credible elections.”
Rights violations included the abusive detention of over 40 critics during the electoral process, including 7 presidential candidates and other political figures, student and peasant leaders, activists, defense lawyers, and journalists. Many were held strictly incommunicado, and some were held in solitary confinement for a prolonged period longer than 15 days, which amounts to torture. Even when visits were allowed, they were heavily restricted, the High Commissioner reported, and detainees were provided meager meals and unbalanced diets, leading to visible weight loss. They were not allowed to receive food brought by their relatives, and prison guards kept lights on in the cells all night.
Some detainees with chronic illnesses were refused the specialized care they required. A lack of adequate or timely medical care and harsh conditions in detention aggravated underlying health conditions for multiple detainees, the High Commissioner found.
Most of these critics have been prosecuted for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity,” without respect for due process or other rights. In most cases, the evidence cited by the Attorney General’s Office was based solely on the defendants’ exercise of their right to free speech. This included claims that the accused had given interviews to media outlets, shared WhatsApp messages, participated in meetings, or signed letters calling for free elections, demanding international condemnation of government abuses, or expressing support for sanctions against Nicaraguan officials.
Most of the people who were arbitrarily detained in 2021, including several would-be presidential candidates, have been recently found guilty of “undermining national integrity” during closed-door trials. Five people were also convicted for alleged “money laundering,” including Cristiana Chamorro, a would-be presidential candidate and former director of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, a free press organization.
More than 130 other people perceived to be critical of the government also remain arbitrarily detained, according to Nicaraguan rights groups.
The authorities have also stripped around 135 nongovernmental organizations and private universities of their legal status, including humanitarian organizations that had been working in the country for decades to help address poverty or improve access to education.
The judiciary does not operate independently in Nicaragua, and impunity for human rights violations is overwhelming. No police officer is known to be under investigation for the abuses committed during the government’s brutal 2018 crackdown against protesters, which left over 300 people dead and 2,000 injured and resulted in hundreds of arbitrary arrests.
Ortega’s government has refused to allow international human rights monitors to access the country since it expelled the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in late 2018.
On March 24, the government expelled the country representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had visited people arbitrarily detained in some prisons but had not been allowed into El Chipote, where many of those arbitrarily detained in 2021 are being held.
“Now that the resolution has passed, it is essential for the new expert body to be immediately operationalized,” Pappier said. “As the government shuts down independent groups and expels international observers, the work of the Group of Experts becomes more urgent than ever.”