The government of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, deepened its systematic repression against critics, journalists, and human rights defenders. Dozens of people arbitrarily detained remain behind bars.
Since taking office in 2007, the government has dismantled all institutional checks on presidential power. Amid repression of critics and political opponents, President Ortega was elected, in 2021, to a fourth consecutive term.
The government closed over 2,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in 2022 and intensified its crackdown against members of the Catholic Church.
Abuses by the National Police and armed pro-government groups during a brutal 2018 crackdown that left over 300 protesters and bystanders dead remain unpunished.
Persistent problems include a total abortion ban and severe restrictions on freedom of expression and association.
Arbitrary Prosecution of Critics
As of September 2022, 209 people perceived as government critics remained in detention, according to local rights groups, including many who were arrested in the context of the 2021 elections.
Critics have been charged with undermining national integrity, propagating false news, laundering money, and related crimes. In many cases, they have been held incommunicado for weeks or months at El Chipote detention facility, some in prolonged solitary confinement. On the limited occasions when visits have been allowed, detainees have reported to family members abusive conditions, including repeated interrogations, inadequate medical attention, and insufficient food.
From February through May 2022, 50 government critics, including seven presidential candidates in the 2021 elections, received sentences of up to 13 years in prison and were disqualified from holding public office. Criminal proceedings were based on bogus charges and violated basic due process rights.
Hugo Torres, 73, a government critic, who was a guerrilla fighter in the 1970s revolution that first brought Ortega to power, died in detention in February 2022. Torres had been arbitrarily arrested in June 2021 and reportedly held in inhumane conditions, and incommunicado for prolonged periods.
In August 2022, police arbitrarily arrested Bishop Rolando Álvarez, an outspoken critic, along with five priests, two seminarians, and one cameraman, after holding them hostage at the episcopal curia of Matagalpa for two weeks. The police accused Álvarez of “acts of hatred” and “destabilizing the state.” Authorities sent him to house arrest. The others are currently being held in detention. A judge granted prosecutors’ requests to hold them 90 days in detention without charges.
In October, police arbitrarily detained Bishop Enrique Martínez Gamboa. He remained in detention at time of writing.
Freedom of Expression, Association
Human rights defenders, journalists and critics are targets of death threats, assault, intimidation, harassment, surveillance, online defamation campaigns, and arbitrary detention and prosecution.
Police frequently station themselves outside critics’ homes, preventing them from leaving, in what in many cases amounts to arbitrary arrest. Those harassed are unable to visit friends and family, attend meetings, go to work, or participate in protests, religious events, or political activities. Some have been arrested repeatedly—sometimes abused in detention—for periods ranging from several days to several months.
Six journalists detained in the context of the 2021 elections were convicted of spreading “fake news,” money laundering, and undermining national integrity, in 2022, and sentenced to up to 13 years in prison.
Police detained two La Prensa workers in July 2022, and a judge granted prosecutors’ requests to hold them in detention for 90 days without charge. La Prensa then reported that an unspecified number of its reporters, editors, and photographers had left Nicaragua, citing constant police harassment. Since 2018, 200 journalists have reportedly gone into exile. La Prensa ended its newspaper’s print edition in August 2021, when the Customs Authority withheld newsprint it had imported.
Authorities closed over 2,000 NGOs in 2022, including women’s, religious, international aid, and medical groups. Many of these closures are based on abusive legislation, including a “foreign agents” law, passed 2020. At least 70 more were closed from 2018 through 2021. They also canceled the legal status of 18 universities, between December 2021 and February 2022, stranding thousands of students.
In August 2022, authorities closed at least 17 radio stations, including some run by the Catholic Church, citing, for example, lack of operating permits.
In September 2022, authorities suspended CNN's Spanish-language service from all cable channels in the country.
Legislators have passed several laws that severely restrict freedom of expression and association and have used them to forcibly close hundreds of non-profits, universities, and media outlets and to arbitrarily detain and prosecute journalists and human rights defenders.
In April 2022, the National Assembly passed a “Regulation and Control of Non-Profit Organizations” law that allows the Interior Ministry to ask legislators to cancel the legal status of groups that “promote campaigns to destabilize the country.” Authorities can also seize the assets of associations that commit “unlawful acts,” violate “public order,” or hinder the Interior Ministry’s “control and surveillance.”
In 2020, authorities passed a cybercrime law that criminalizes a wide range of online communications, including by punishing with sentences of up to five years the “publication” or “dissemination” of “false” or “distorted” information on the internet that is “likely to spread anxiety, anguish or fear.” The same year a “Foreign Agents” law was enacted, which allows cancellation of the legal status of organizations that obtain foreign funds for activities that “interfere in Nicaragua’s internal affairs.”
Right to Vote and Run for Office
Legislation passed between October 2020 and February 2021 has been used to deter critical speech, inhibit opposition participation in elections, and keep critics in prison without bringing formal charges.
After the National Assembly appointed Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) members loyal to President Ortega in 2021, the CSE stripped the main opposition parties’ registration.
In July 2022, authorities dismissed five elected opposition mayors, de facto, citing their party’s lack of registration, and appointed government party members to replace them.
Indigenous Peoples’ Rights
Indigenous and Afro-descendant people face discrimination, reflected in poverty rates, precarious living conditions, and persistent violence.
Investigations into homicides and attacks related to territorial disputes in the Mayangna Sauni As Territory have stalled, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported in 2022.
Impunity for 2018 Crackdown
Police, in coordination with armed pro-government groups, repressed massive anti-government protests in 2018, killing at least 328 people, injuring some 2,000, and detaining hundreds. Authorities reported that 21 police officers were killed in the context of demonstrations.
Many protesters were detained for months, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment including electric shocks, severe beatings, fingernail removal, asphyxiation, and rape. Serious violations of due process and other rights also marred prosecutions against protesters.
No police officer has been convicted in connection with these abuses.
Women’s and Girls’ Sexual and Reproductive Rights
Nicaragua has, since 2006, prohibited abortion under all circumstances, even when a pregnancy is life-threatening or results from rape or incest. Those who have abortions face prison sentences up to two years; medical professionals who perform them, up to six years. The ban forces those confronting unwanted pregnancies to seek illegal and unsafe abortions, risking their health and lives.
Rates of domestic abuse, violence against women, and femicide, defined as a man’s murder of a woman “in the public or private sphere,” increased from August 2019 to December 2020, OHCHR reported.
The government did not publish figures on femicides and other forms of violence against women in 2022. A local human rights organization reported 46 femicides between January and October 2022.
Nicaraguan Asylum Seekers
Between April 2018 and March 2022, 200,000 citizens fled Nicaragua, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported.
The United States Border Patrol apprehended 164,600 Nicaraguans from January to September 2022, up from 50,000 in all of 2021 and only a few thousand in years prior. Many others fled to Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, and Europe.
Key International Actors
In March 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a group of human rights experts with a one-year mandate to investigate human rights violations committed in Nicaragua since April 2018.
No international monitoring bodies have been allowed to enter the country since 2018, when authorities expelled the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)’s Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI), the IACHR-appointed Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), and OHCHR.
Also in March, authorities expelled Apostolic Nuncio to Nicaragua Monsignor Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag. In July, authorities cancelled the legal registration and expelled the Missionaries of Charity Association of the Order of St. Teresa of Calcutta. In August, after the police arrested Bishop Rolando Álvarez, Pope Francis said that he was “following closely, with concern and sorrow, the situation in Nicaragua.”
In September 2022, OHCHR reported a “deterioration of the human rights crisis,” saying the government continued “silencing critical and dissenting voices” and was “drastically reducing civic space.”
In November 2021, Nicaragua announced its withdrawal from the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS General Assembly and Permanent Council had said that the 2021 elections were not free nor fair, and that Nicaragua had violated its commitments under the Inter-American Democratic Charter. In April 2022, the Ortega government said the withdrawal was “completed,” seized the OAS office in the country; and revoked the credentials of OAS representatives; however, the OAS says that the OAS Charter remains in effect in Nicaragua until the end of 2023, requiring Nicaragua’s compliance with obligations under the Inter-American System.
The US sanctioned additional Nicaraguan officials and the state mining company, bringing to 53 the individuals and entities sanctioned, as of September, under the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, the Nicaraguan Human Rights and Corruption Act of 2018, and other US laws and executive orders. In October 2022, the US Department of State imposed visa restrictions on over 500 Nicaraguans and the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on the Nicaraguan mining authority, the General Directorate of Mines (DGM).
In November 2021, the US enacted a law to monitor, report on, and address corruption by the Ortega government and human rights abuses by Nicaraguan security forces.
In September 2022, the European Parliament denounced the “deterioration” of the rule of law and “escalation” of repression against the Catholic Church.
Also in September, the Ortega government expelled the European Union envoy to Nicaragua days after the EU delegation to the UN called for the restoration of democracy and the freeing of political prisoners. The government also severed diplomatic relations with the Netherlands after it cited concerns with human rights violations and deteriorating democratic institutions in Nicaragua when cancelling funding for a hospital project.
The EU maintains sanctions on 21 individuals and three state-linked entities in Nicaragua. They were renewed in October for a one-year period. The United Kingdom has sanctioned 13 individuals implicated in human rights violations, and Canada has sanctioned 35.