Nicaragua 2019
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Nicaragua 2019

Nicaragua’s worst human rights crisis in decades continued throughout 2019. Widespread social protests, triggered by a series of social security reforms announced in April 2018, continued across the country. In response to demonstrations, the authorities adopted a strategy of violent repression. By the end of 2019, at least 328 people had been killed, primarily by state security forces and pro-government armed groups, and more than 2,000 others had been injured since the start of the crisis. Hundreds of people were arbitrarily detained and tens of thousands were forced to flee to Costa Rica. Gender-based killings continued and a total ban on abortion remained in place. Impunity persisted for perpetrators of violence against Indigenous Peoples and other human rights violations.

International scrutiny

During the first months of the crisis in 2018, the Nicaraguan government granted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) access to the country. However, by the end of 2018, the authorities had expelled both mechanisms and withdrawn permission for them to enter the country.

During 2019, the government remained closed to international scrutiny and did not allow international human rights bodies to enter. In September 2019, during the session of the UN Human Rights Council, the Nicaraguan government rejected the report presented by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. It also rejected 124 of the 259 recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Committee in the framework of its examination of the country’s human rights record under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process; the rejected recommendations were mainly related to the current crisis. Also, in September, the authorities decided to deny the Commission on Nicaragua, created by the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, access to the country.[1]

Freedom of expression and assembly

During the year, the exercise of rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly were met with violent repression.[2] In October 2018, the National Police announced that any demonstration or mobilization must obtain prior authorization from the police authorities. In this context, local groups reported the systematic denial of permits for peaceful demonstrations by the National Police, arbitrary arrests of protesters and excessive police presence during demonstrations and religious celebrations as a form of intimidation.[3]

As a result of the strategy of repression against protests and dissenting voices, at least 65 people remained in detention for political reasons at the end of 2019.[4]

The director and chief of information of the media outlet 100% Noticias were released in June 2019. The two journalists had been detained in December 2018 and charged with hate speech and ‘terrorism’-related crimes. However, according to media reports, in October the government informed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that it would not return the facilities of 100% Noticias confiscated at the time of their arrest in December 2018.

Printed newspapers faced a precarious situation due to a decision by customs offices to continue impounding imported paper and ink.

By the end of 2019, at least 100 journalists and media workers had fled the country.

Unfair trials

Violation of due process against those facing politically motivated charges persisted. Ineffective legal remedies and violations of the right to an adequate legal defence continued to be reported. In June 2019, an Amnesty Law was adopted which was widely criticized as posing a potential obstacle to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and endangering victims’ right to an effective remedy.

In addition, there were serious concerns among former detainees and national organizations regarding the legal situation of released detainees who had been apprehended in the context of the protests. Widespread concern persisted that cases were not filed or closed. Moreover, intimidation and harassment by the police, pro-government armed groups and local surveillance networks linked to the government were constantly reported by those released and their families

On 14 November 2019, the Nicaraguan police detained 16 activists as they left the San Miguel Church in Masaya. The activists, who were later charged by the Attorney General's Office with illegal arms trafficking, were giving water to a group of relatives and activists who were on a hunger strike to demand the release of people detained for participating in the protests. In December, 91 people were released from prison, among them the 13 activists. Local NGOs reported that those released were not acquitted and that the 16 activists still faced charges.

Right to life and physical integrity

There were continuing reports of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners detained in the context of the protests that started in April 2018.

In May, a policeman shot and killed a 57-year-old detainee, Eddy Montes, following a protest at La Modelo prison. At least 11 other detainees and six police officers were injured during this protest. Although the authorities claimed that Eddy Montes had attempted to steal an officer’s gun, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported receiving information indicating that he was shot from a distance of approximately 4m.

According to the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH), there was an increase in the number of targeted killings of campesinos who had been identified as participants in the protests or opponents of the government. CENIDH reported that up to August at least 17 people were killed, allegedly as a result of increased activity by pro-government armed groups in rural areas.

Human rights defenders and freedom of association

The Nicaraguan authorities continued targeting journalists, human rights defenders and local NGOs. In September, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that government officials continued to discredit and harass human rights defenders, journalists and those who were critical of the government, leading to a further significant restriction of civic space.

The work of local NGOs was seriously hindered during the year. By the end of 2019, the legal registration of nine human rights organizations, which had been cancelled by the National Assembly in December 2018, had not been restored. The authorities had withdrawn registration and confiscated their assets. In October, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights granted provisional measures to protect members of the CENIDH and the Permanent Commission of Human Rights, because of the serious risks to their lives and physical integrity.

In November, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued its decision on Nicaragua’s compliance with the 2017 Acosta et al. v. Nicaragua judgement. In 2017, the Court had found the state responsible for having violated the rights to access to justice, truth and physical integrity of human rights defender María Luisa Acosta, following the murder of her husband, Francisco García Valle. More than two years later, in the 2019 judgment, the Court indicated that the State has not taken any action nor made progress towards overcoming partial impunity in the case, and that Nicaragua’s express position not to comply with its obligation to investigate constitutes contempt. Moreover, the Court added that far from observing a substantial improvement in protection of human rights defenders since the 2017 judgement, it noted that the situation has significantly worsened.

In December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures in favor of 17 women human rights defenders in Nicaragua that, in the current context of the crisis, have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, death threats and attacks.

Forced migration

Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans were forced to flee the country during the crisis. According to the IACHR, more than 96,000 people had left Nicaragua by the end of 2019.

On 15 April, Nicaragua’s government reported that it had established a "Programme on the Assisted Voluntary Return of Nicaraguans who left the country in the context of events that occurred after 18 April 2018”. The programme was created without the consensus of the ongoing negotiating forum set up by the government and the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a civil society body. The Civic Alliance described the decision to establish the programme as unilateral and stated that it was not in line with the agreements signed with the government as it does not grant personal and family security to all exiles.

Local NGOs and media outlets reported that some of those who had returned from exile had been subjected to harassment by the authorities and pro-government groups.

Women’s rights

Abortion remained banned in all circumstances and violence against women continued to be a fundamental obstacle to women’s rights.

In 2019, there were at least 60 gender-based killings of women, according to media reports and the NGO Catholics for the Right to Decide. In September, the Articulation of Social Movements, a local network, reported that a decision by the authorities to limit the definition of femicide solely to intimate-partner killings committed in the private sphere had led to the apparent reduction in femicides reflected in official data.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights

Impunity persisted for crimes such as killings, rapes, kidnappings, enforced disappearances and death threats against communities in the context of territorial disputes between Indigenous peoples and non-indigenous settlers attempting to illegally occupy Indigenous territories in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region.

In May, community authorities and NGOs informed the IACHR that the government has failed to fulfil the precautionary measures issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in favour of Indigenous peoples and that non-indigenous settlers continued to occupy ancestral territories and exploit their natural resources, with the acquiescence of the state. As a result, forced displacement continued to affect communities’ access to their rights to food, education and means of subsistence.

In August, local media reported that during a public event President Ortega stated that his administration remained committed to promoting the construction of the Grand Interoceanic Canal. This statement sparked renewed fears and concerns among Indigenous Peoples about the lack of respect for their right to free, prior and informed consent on this mega-project.

According to media reports and local groups, violence also flared in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region where members of Indigenous communities were attacked and killed in the context of illegal occupations of their territories.

In December, the Alliance of Indigenous and Afrodescendant People of Nicaragua denounced that a majority of Indigenous and Afrodescendant government structures had been supplanted by parallel structures imposed by authorities from the governing party.

[1] Nicaragua: OAS member states must continue to work tenaciously against repression (News, 1 October 2019).

[2] Nicaragua: Still governing by repression a year after crisis began (News, 25 April 2019).

[3] Nicaragua: Human Rights Council must respond to gravity of OHCHR report (AMR 43/1023/2019).

[4] Nicaragua: Over 130 people remain in detention (AMR 43/1249/2019).