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Four Years After the 2018 Political Crisis Outbreak in Nicaragua: What can be done?

April 2018. Tribute to the more than 60 killed during citizen protests in Nicaragua. Photo by: Jorge Mejía Peralta. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The repressive strategy behind the Ortega-Murillo regime was promptly released after the April 2018 uprising. What initially seemed like a peaceful protest against the reforms of the social pension system and the destructive fire in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, quickly turned into an unprecedented social movement. OHCHR described the protest using the following statement:

“The crisis has taken several forms and experienced different phases. The initial phase was characterized by the State’s repressive reply to public demonstrations and by protests spreading across the country in different formats (including barricades and roadblocks). The second stage (mid-June to mid-July) saw the forcible removal of roadblocks and barricades by State authorities and pro-Government armed elements. The third and current stage, which followed the suppression of the protests, has seen the criminalization and persecution of those who participated in the demonstrations or are otherwise perceived as Government opponents.” (OHCHR, 2018, P. 7)

Despite the claims for Ortega’s dismissal from power, it became clear that four years after the Nicaraguan protests in 2018, the human rights situation in Nicaragua continues to raise alarm among the international community.


The Ortega-Murillo Regime violates and threatens Nicaraguan’s human rights and well-being in three main areas

1. The erosion of the Rule of Law:

Since 2018, the regime has been able to establish a legal arsenal intended to legitimize its actions. Laws that restrict individual liberties, such as the Special Cybercrime Law; the Law Against Money Laundering, Financing of Terrorism, and the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the Law for the Defense of the People's Rights to Independence, Sovereignty, and Self-determination for Peace are contrary to international human rights law standards. These laws are at the center of trials outside the constitutionally enshrined criminal guarantees in which judicial decisions emerged from manipulated evidence and in clear contradiction with the principle of proportionality.

Over these four years, the gradual erosion of the Rule of Law has been the result of the gradual convention of powers and weak institutional framework, especially after the 2006 presidential elections and the illegitimate presidential elections held on 7 November 2021.

In terms of violation of due process rights, it should be noted that the lack of judicial power was achieved in several ways. For instance, limiting legal assistance to defendants; imposing public defenders over private lawyers, even tampering with the principle of presumption of innocence, or misrepresenting the burden of proof for crimes of great gravity. The latter one is especially alarming due to its weight on convicting someone for murder or arbitrary deprivation of liberty measures based on manipulated testimonies (OHCHR, August 2018; OHCHR, September 2018; OHCHR, December 2018; OHCHR, January 2019; OHCHR, September 2019). [1]

Furthermore, the violation of fair trials and constitutional guarantees, and arbitrary detentions are intrinsically connected with enforced disappearances, torture, and inhumane treatment. The detainees find themselves in an alarming situation. Since 2018, the Nicaraguan government has been carrying out a systematic elimination of its opponents including Cristiana Chamorro; Noel Vidaurre; Arturo Cruz; Juan Sebastián Chamorro; Félix Maradiaga; Miguel Mora; Medardo Mairena; peasants and rural leaders such as Doña Francisca Ramirez; journalists; students and human rights defenders. The intimidation of political opponents has often been initiated by pre-trial custody for up to 9 months followed by de facto detentions incompatible with human rights standards, especially the Nelson Mandela Rules. Prisoners are facing isolation confinement measures for indefinite periods during which they can’t communicate with their relatives or see the light of the day. Furthermore, some detainees are in desperate need of medical treatment, which could lead to death or irreversible damage. For instance, on February 12, Hugo Torres, a 73-year-old former guerrilla fighter and a critic of President Daniel Ortega, died in detention in Nicaragua due to a lack of medical treatment.

It should be noted that the precarious situation of political prisoners has been particularly alarming in El Chipote, a prison which, according to El País, “has become the presidential couple’s darkest dungeon". Just Like Hugo Torres, Lesther Aléman, the fearless student known for asking Ortega to surrender, is being kept in this detention facility.

2. The arbitrary shutdown of civil society organizations – the right of association and freedom of assembly at stake:

The arbitrary rules created to revoke the legal status of thousands of NGOs and other private institutions, including numerous universities, have also been used by the regime to suffocate civil society. On the 31st of May 2022, Nicaragua's National Assembly revoked the legal status of Academia de la Lengua and 82 other civil organizations. Since the 2018 uprising, approximately 200 organizations were shut down because they were not registered as “foreign agents”. For instance, CPDH (Comité Permanente de Derechos Humanos de Nicaragua), the last Human Rights Organisation legally operating in Nicaragua, was also closed last April 6. In particular, the Government condemned CPDH for arbitrary reasons such as failing to present its financial reports that complied with the law. For universities across the country, the situation is more worrisome as exiled students haven't been able to acquire their academic transcripts to study in their reception countries.

3. The marginalization of afro descendants and indigenous peoples:

As a country imbricated with its colonial past, Nicaraguan afro descendants and indigenous peoples already face systemic racism. However, especially since the deterioration of democracy in Nicaragua, the situation has worsened dramatically. According to the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

“In 2021, indigenous peoples and people of African descent in Nicaragua continued to suffer discrimination and violence. Even though the right to autonomy over their land and territories is protected by law, violent attacks have continued to prevent the peaceful enjoyment of their rights. The resources in their territories attract non-indigenous settlers, who often resort to violence in clashes with indigenous communities.”

In addition, the autonomy law demarcating indigenous and Afro-descendant territories seems to be inoperative as the regime attempted to issue the Grand interoceanic project. On 13 June 20213, the Nicaraguan National Assembly adopted the "Special Law for the Development of Nicaraguan Infrastructure and Transport in respect of the Canal, Free Trade Zones and Associated Infrastructure” (Law 840).

The construction of the interoceanic canal is, undoubtedly, the most controversial action of the Ortega regime because the concession was granted to Empresa Desarrolladora de Infraestructuras S.A., which was established only 7 months before receiving the concession and then acquired by the Chinese company HK-Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. Limited (HKC).

Even though the project was never implemented, the law is still in force and expropriation remains a possibility. It was precisely in the light of such danger that Mónica López Baltodano filed an unconstitutionality appeal against Law 840 questioning the lawfulness of adjudication proceedings and other relevant elements, such as the project's financing sources. The same issues were raised by another investigation carried out by FIDHE on the matter.

Furthermore, as no prior consent was given, all the concerned communities gathered in a collective response that prompted the 2018 upheaval. Civil society mobilization was indeed one of the outcomes of the threats posed by the grand canal. The Campesino social movement, represented by the National Council in Defense of our Land, Lake, and Sovereignty (Consejo por la Defensa de la Tierra, Lago y Soberanía) and Cocibolca Group, was crucial to unify the country towards a common purpose.

Despite the legal and constitutional aspects concerning the interoceanic canal construction, the marginalization of vulnerable groups has been increasing. Since 2015, recurrent attacks against indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in the Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region have been committed in the context of widespread land-grab. For instance, on 23 August 2021, the Miskitu and Mayangna indigenous peoples were victim to a massacre within the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. In addition, other factors such as extensive cattle ranching, logging, and mining activities are still threatening the territories and exposing their inhabitants to systematic human rights violations.

Voices from the exile: the situation in Costa Rica:

The number of exiled people is continuously increasing. For instance, Nicaraguans exiled in Costa Rica find themselves in legal limbo, as they have to wait up to 5 years for their first refugee application. UNHCR supports Nicaraguan migrants in the first phase of refugee settlement. Afterward, however, they are given a temporary card, which does not give them access to any rights. Work permits, for example, are not recognized by employers.

In addition, as already mentioned before, verification of academic credentials has been particularly troublesome and has prevented many qualified professionals from integrating into Costa Rica’s education and labor markets. Unfortunately, not all of the refugees have the economic capacity to have their academic degrees recognized or to further pursue higher education. Some refugees, who were in the process of finishing their degrees, have not been able to do so because of the high cost associated with the accreditation process.

International efforts in response to the socio-political crisis – The European Union Approach:

The importance of international pressure through sanctions is quite complex as it often negatively and disproportionally affects the average citizens. But, on the other hand, it can also be an effective instrument to weaken the regime by cutting off its access to financial sources to prevent the Government from pursuing its actions.

Bearing this in mind, the EU sanctions regime was first introduced in October 2019 along with repeated calls for dialogue with the opposition and immediate release of political prisoners.

Up to now, the Council has imposed individual sanctions against 14 persons, among which Vice-President Rosario Murillo and 7 more individuals were recently added to the list of those sanctioned due to human rights violations in Nicaragua.

What can be done – In conclusion:

As the Ortega-Murillo regime tightens its repressive measures against human rights defenders and vulnerable groups, it has become clear that international pressure should be strengthened to put an end to this cycle of systematic human rights violations.

Although civil society has been strongly repressed due to the closing of many NGOs; universities and institutions, some organizations succeed in their goals of promoting their causes from exile. Therefore, it is crucial to support these collectives and help them raise their voices toward a democratic Nicaragua.

In addition, coordination among civil society organizations should be implemented. A strong network of support is the key to a firm political opposition. There is still much to be done, but Nicaraguan voices continue to make their way for the restoration of the Rule of Law and democratic institutionalism in the country.

[1] The mentioned reports contemplate more detailed information on the violation of due process rights in Nicaragua.



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