According to a new report published by Human Rights Watch on 19 June, pro-government forces in Nicaragua committed human rights abuses including torture in suppressing recent protests against President Daniel Ortega. The report calls for instating sanctions of the top officials involved in the crimes. In April 2018, after demonstrations against Ortega broke out, more than 700 people were arrested and 325 protesters were killed in clashes with security forces. More than 2,000 protesters were injured leading to the country’s worst crisis since a bloody civil war in the 1980s.
“Daniel Ortega has shown no real commitment to justice for the victims of the brutal crackdown by National Police and armed thugs during the 2018 protests,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 75 people, including victims who had experienced a form of abuse and their relatives, witnesses, defense attorneys, medical professionals, and representatives of international organisations. Doctors interviewed by the organisation said they treated dozens of people showing signs of physical harm consistent with abuse and torture described by the detainees. The acts included rape, waterboarding, electric shocks, acid burns, mock executions and removal of fingernails.
“The cases we documented are consistent with a pattern of systematic abuse against anti-government protesters and opponents that international human rights bodies have reported,” Human Rights Watch said.
In the months since the protests, the Nicaraguan government has intensified its crackdown on civil society and the free press, stripping NGOs of their legal registration, shutting down media outlets, arresting journalists, and ending the mandates of several international organizations monitoring human rights. More than 60,000 Nicaraguans have escaped into exile because of political strife over the past 14 months.
Nicaraguan human rights defender Bianca Jagger said of President Ortega: “He wants to eliminate any voice of dissent.”
In April 2018, huge numbers of Nicaraguans took to the streets to protest the Ortega government. They were met with violence. The brutal crackdown by the National Police and heavily armed pro-government groups left more than 300 people dead and more than 2,000 injured. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) estimates that nearly 800 people have been detained since the protests started.
Working in a hospital during the protests, Dr Josmar Ulises Briones Montalván was shocked when colleagues told him the Nicaraguan government had ordered the country’s public hospitals to turn away injured protesters. “The duty of a doctor is to save lives,” he said.
In March 2019, the Nicaraguan government agreed to release those who had been detained in the context of anti-government protests within 90 days and to drop the charges against them, in an effort to restart stalled talks with the opposition and to persuade the international community to lift sanctions. As of 10 June, 392 people had been released, but many were sent to house arrest and the charges against them remain. Others benefited from an amnesty law passed in June.
One of those freed, Hansell Vásquez, told The Guardian he felt “happy to have escaped that hell” but also “sad and worried because the country is more locked up than when we became prisoners”.
On 8 June, the Nicaraguan National Assembly passed an amnesty law for crimes committed in the context of anti-government protests. The law indicates that crimes “regulated in international treaties ratified by Nicaragua” will be excluded from amnesties. Yet given the lack of judicial independence in the country, there is a serious risk that the law will be used to consolidate the impunity for officers responsible for serious abuses in the country, Human Rights Watch said.
In a statement, the UN’s human rights chief, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, urged Ortega to “immediately halt the persecution of human rights defenders, civil society organisations [and] journalists and news organisations that are critical of the government”.