‘She doesn’t want to die there’: Women activists punished with jail in Nicaragua amid COVID-19

By Astrid Valencia & Josefina Salomón

While authorities in Nicaragua announce selective prison releases amid the COVID-19 pandemic, jails across the country are turning into centres for the punishment of activists. Imprisoned women talk about inhumane conditions, lack of medical attention and abuse. The pandemic is turning a desperate situation into an extremely grim one. Activists and their relatives are terrified for their future.

The sound of the alarm going off every other Tuesday at 3:30 am announces the start of a painful routine for Shirley.

She jumps out of bed, gets dressed, checks that the plastic bags filled with two weeks’ worth of food and cleaning products are well packed, following the strict guidelines she was given, and starts a four-hour-long journey to Nicaragua’s women prison, located in the department of Managua.

Shirley’s mother, Maria Esperanza Sánchez García, is one of three women activists locked up behind this jail’s crumbling walls under what local human rights organizations say are trumped-up charges.

Since she was arbitrarily arrested on 26 January, Maria’s family has been desperately campaigning for her release. The activist suffers a number of medical conditions that make her particularly vulnerable to respiratory illnesses, so when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted a month after she was put behind bars, her family’s concerns turned into terror.

Nicaragua’s main women’s prison, commonly known as La Esperanza, meaning “the hope” is located in Tipitapa, 25 kilometres from the city of Managua. The irony behind the name is remarkable.

Former prisoners told Amnesty International the building is organized in large blocks and some individual cells. It was originally built with the aim of providing rehabilitation for women who had committed crimes, but local human rights organizations say conditions quickly turned abusive.

I realized my mum had been abducted on the afternoon of the 26th. I had been looking for her everywhere. We thought she had been killed and her body dumped somewhere. We were very worried
Shirley

Prisoners say life in the jail is at best difficult – with overcrowding, a lack of drinkable water, proper food, beds and medical treatment ongoing issues – and at worst, unbearable.

For activists, things are particularly hard.  

When Shirley was first able to visit her mother in the prison, María told her that guards had been harassing and abusing her – and encouraging other women to do it, too. She said they are punishing her for her activism and criticism of the policies and practices of the Ortega administration.

Maria Esperanza is no stranger to struggle. At the time of her arrest had suffered a wave of threats and harassment since taking part in the protests that had put Nicaragua on the front pages of newspapers across the world.

The protests that started in April 2018 were some of the largest the country has seen in its recent history. Thousands took to the streets to protest, initially against a series of reforms to the social security system.

The authorities response was brutal, with police and pro-government armed groups directly attacking the demonstrators. 

By the end of 2019, at least 328 people had been killed, mostly by security forces and other pro-government groups, thousands had been injured and hundreds arbitrarily arrested. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people were left with no choice but to leave the country out of fear.

But the repression did not end there. Human rights activists, the relatives of imprisoned activists, lawyers, journalists and even doctors who supported the protests have reported suffering harassment and attacks. The reports of arbitrary detention continue.

María had been living in between safe houses in a bid to protect her family after armed men showed up at her house on multiple occasions and painted threatening messages on her wall.

The protests have not stopped. Nor has the repression, with trumped-up charges one of the government’s favourite strategies to silence the opposition.

Local experts say women activists are targeted in particularly unique ways.

“The sexual element is ever present, the threat of sexual violence targeted at them and at their daughters. We have also seen their leadership roles, their capacity and their honesty called into question,” a human rights defender who asked to remain anonymous told Amnesty International. “And there’s also the family element. Many of the women are solely responsible for supporting their families so when they are in prison things get complicated.”

After her arrest, María was taken to El Chipote, a police station in Managua infamous for the brutal treatment detainees face there. Nobody was told she was there.

“I realized my mum had been abducted on the afternoon of the 26th. I had been looking for her everywhere. We thought she had been killed and her body dumped somewhere. We were very worried,” Shirley remembers.

When the authorities eventually allowed Shirley to see her mother, she noticed marks on her arms and legs.

“She had been beaten during the interrogations,” she says. “We weren’t able to talk much because everybody was listening in. She would burst into tears every time she started telling me what had happened, so we didn’t talk much.”

María had been accused of drug trafficking, a charge lawyers in Nicaragua say authorities use to punish and discredit activists.

That was just the start of her nightmare. Around two weeks after her initial arrest, Maria was taken to La Esperanza. It was early February and the coronavirus pandemic was still hardly spoken of in Nicaragua. 

She was placed in a cell block with another 75 women some of them, like her, suffer from chronic illnesses. She told relatives that the rows of beds did not leave much space between them. She thought she was lucky to have a small window just above her bed.

Shirley, who visits every 15 days, says the conditions in the prison are inhumane: “The food is terrible. We bring her things that last well like oats, biscuits, cheese, things that help her maintain a healthy diet. When I see her, I bring fresh food for her to eat with me.”

When María and her relatives learned about the deadly virus, their concern turned into fear. She suffers from asthma and high blood pressure, making her particularly vulnerable if she were to contract the illness.

“She told us crying that she didn’t want to die there. We started sending more cleaning products, more soap, chlorine and detergent. At first, they wouldn’t let us go in wearing facemasks, but that changed over time,” Shirley says.

Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in late March, authorities in Nicaragua tried to downplay its impact in the country. They promoted public gatherings, kept schools open. Lawyers representing imprisoned human rights activists told Amnesty International some government officials were prevented from wearing protective equipment.

Severe overcrowding, plus a lack of water and medical care, made prisons across Nicaragua particularly vulnerable hotspots.

She told us crying that she didn’t want to die there. We started sending more cleaning products, more soap, chlorine and detergent. At first, they wouldn’t let us go in wearing facemasks, but that changed over time
Shirley

Prisoners at La Esperanza started showing symptoms such as coughs, fever and body pains. Medical care was extremely limited, with COVID-19 tests out of the question, according to relatives of those imprisoned and human rights activists.

“The prisoners used to cry, saying they had the virus,” Shirley remembers her mother saying. “We bring her medicine and she gives some of it to the others.”

By the end of March, when María suffered an asthma attack that alerted her relatives to how  poorly she was being treated, the rumours of coronavirus contagion behind bars had spread like wildfire across Nicaragua’s prison system.

Succumbing to pressure, and maybe in a bid to decongest prisons, authorities eventually ordered the release of 4,515 inmates in June. A further 1,605 were released in mid-July.

Yet, only  four of the at least 80 people held on politically motivated charges made it out, according to local human rights organizations.

For those still held behind bars, things are only slightly different. María is still in overcrowded conditions, according to her family. Visitors can wear facemasks and must wash their hands and have their temperature taken before visits. Medical health for those showing symptoms, however, has not improved. No one is being tested or receiving proper health care, according to lawyers and relatives.

What goes on behind the walls of Nicaragua’s women’s prisons remains a mystery beyond the testimonies of those who have spent time there.

Authorities have, for years, prevented human rights organizations from visiting prisons. The Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos - CENIDH) was last allowed to visit a prison in 2010.

Lawyers and relatives of some of the activists held behind bars say there are two categories of prisoners: those held on common crimes and those who participate in any form of protest or criticism of the government

“They [women whose detention is politically motivated] are not allowed to go to the patio or take part in activities. When I visit her, they search me more than others and sometimes they don’t give her the things I bring for her,” Shirley explains.

Lucía Pineda remembers the treatment she received in La Esperanza as if she were still there.

The journalist was arrested in a raid on the offices of 100% Noticias, where she worked, in December 2018. Her and the director of the channel were accused of “inciting violence and hate” and “promoting terrorism”. After 40 days in a police station cell where she says she was interrogated and tortured, Lucía was moved to La Esperanza, where she was held in solitary confinement for 132 days when she was not able to see anybody, not even her relatives.

“In Nicaragua nothing is normal,” says Lucía, who now lives in Costa Rica, where she continues to report on crimes under international law and human rights violations in her country. “There has been constant pressure and threats to stop informing but we keep reporting. They imprisoned us to send a message to the independent media that they have to fall into line, that they have to think like the regime.”

Lucía was eventually released in June 2019. Her story is another example of how prisons are used as a tool to punish activists.

“I was absolutely isolated there (in La Esperanza). Nobody could come near or talk to me, the door was always locked. There was a guard outside 24/7. They wanted me to go crazy. I used to spend the days talking to myself, out loud. They wanted me to be quiet, but I was not going to be silenced. That’s how I survived.”

Inside the crumbling walls of La Esperanza, things for María are turning desperate.

A month after a trial packed with irregularities she was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined 31,000 thousand Córdobas (nearly US$ 900).

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, says prisons in Nicaragua have become one tool in the government’s arsenal to silence those who think differently.

“Activists like María Esperanza should never have been put behind bars in the first place. Keeping her there, given her health condition, in the midst of a pandemic, serves no purpose but to send the dangerous message that dissenting with the government is not allowed.”

Local activists say the fight does not stop when women are released. The Mesoamerican Initiative on Women Human Rights Defenders has documented several cases of women activists suffering campaigns of harassment and attacks that have even prevented them for working after their release.

Shirley is worried about the future but says they will never give up their fight to have María released.

“We dream for the day she comes back home,” she says as she prepares for the next visit.

This piece was originally published by VICE