Abuse and fear: Trans women speak out about life in Nicaragua’s prisons during COVID-19
A campaign of harassment and attacks at the hands of Daniel Ortega’s government has condemned human rights activists in Nicaragua to a life of fear. For trans women, things are infinitely worse. Being jailed alongside men and having extremely limited access to medical care and life-saving medication is just the start of the long list of abuses they face daily.
There are few things more frightening for human rights activists in Nicaragua than to end up behind bars, facing trumped-up charges, in one of the country’s overcrowded, crumbling prisons, with reports of harassment and abuse by prisoners and guards.
For trans women, that fear runs even deeper. For them, imprisonment means being held in small cells alongside men, where they fear of being attacked because of their activism – and their gender identity.
That is exactly what is happening to Celia Cruz, a trans woman and human rights activist from Ometepe, an island in the lake Cocibolca, in southern Nicaragua.
Celia’s lawyer described that she was arrested alongside other activists on 21 April, after she broadcasted a video showing police violently repressing a group of people that were commemorating the second anniversary of the start of nationwide protests against changes to the local social security system in 2018. According to Celia’s lawyer, she was accused of kidnapping one of the officers.
Months later, her relatives reported that she is still being held in a small cell with six men, limited access to water, food and medicines in a prison where protective measures against the COVID-19 pandemic are wishful thinking.
Her story is a painful illustration of what life is like for trans women who dare to speak up against the government in Nicaragua.
Celia’s relatives say she had been harassed and threatened a few days before the arrest. They believe it was a way to punish her for taking part in a number of protests against government policies.
When police officers told her on 21 April that the local police commissioner wanted to speak with her, she agreed to go. She did not know she was being arrested.
After spending over a week in El Chipote, a police station in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, notorious for the abuse that human rights activists suffer there, Celia was presented before a judge, where she was charged with a number of crimes, including kidnapping.
Yonarqui Martinez García, one of Celia’s lawyers, says despite the lack of evidence that any kidnapping took place, the judge convicted her of “extortive kidnapping” – a crime that can carry a sentence of 11 years - on 21 July. At the time of writing she was still awaiting sentencing.
“She was convicted just because she had a mobile phone and had reported how the national police abused people on the isle of Ometepe,” Martinez García says.
Celia’s story is not unusual. Local human rights organizations say the Ortega administration is resorting to charging human rights activists with crimes such as kidnapping or drug trafficking in a bid to stop their activism and discredit them.
Since thousands of people took part in scores of protests against social security reforms back in April 2018, the Nicaraguan authorities launched a counter-attack that seemed designed to silence all forms of opposition.
She was convicted just because she had a mobile phone and had reported how the national police abused people on the isle of Ometepe
By the end of 2019, at least 328 people had been killed in the context of the demonstrations, mostly at the hands of security forces and other pro-government groups; thousands were injured and hundreds arbitrarily arrested. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimate that nearly 100,000 people were left with no choice but to leave the country out of fear. Many are still unable to return home.
But the repression has not ended. Human rights activists, the relatives of imprisoned protesters, lawyers, journalists and even doctors who supported the demonstrations have reported suffering harassment and attacks.
Local civil society organizations estimate that more than 80 activists remain behind bars, held on politically motivated charges. Among them is Celia, who is being held in the Jorge Navarro prison complex, a penitentiary for male inmates known as "La Modelo".
Victoria Obando, a trans woman and human rights activist, says she still remembers the terror that filled her in August 2018, when she was taken to the infamous prison.
Victoria was violently arrested in the western city of León after taking part in one of the many anti-government protests that were being organized across the country.
“We were told we were being arrested because of the ‘situation’ that was taking place across the country,” she says.
After spending 10 days at a police station, in a small cell with men, she was brought before a judge and accused of terrorism and arms trafficking, among other charges.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “When I was in the truck and we realized that we were on our way to La Modelo, I thought my life was over. It filled me with terror, I’d never been in a prison.”
The facility has a capacity for 2,400 people but in 2013, the last time official figures were published, it already held nearly double that, around 4,600 people, according to a report from local organization Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights.
Lawyers and relatives of prisoners held there told Amnesty International of the shocking conditions of detention, including the severe overcrowding, lack of drinkable water and virtually non-existent access to medicines.
Trans women face particular hardships, including being denied access to their clothes, being deadnamed and misgendered, being sexually harassed and denied access to essential, lifesaving medicines.
“Trans people suffer distinct forms of repression in prison, just for being trans, for being visible. For me, it meant they didn’t give me my personal items, from my clothes to my soap, shaver and underwear,” Victoria says. “Being in a cell with men was horrible. I got ill because I only had one uniform and I did not want to take it off (to wash it) because I did not want to be naked in front of them.”
When Victoria was imprisoned, activists were held in the same cells or blocks. But more recently, in what lawyers say is a strategy to further punish dissent and prevent activists from organizing, they are separated and held with other prisoners. This is the case for Celia.
Celia’s lawyer, Martinez García, says they noticed she was being treated differently from the start.
“There is a lot of discrimination,” she says. “Celia constantly complains about the guards mistreating her and the immense discrimination she faces for being trans. She is insulted, they make fun of her. Trans women experience a lot of psychological torture in prisons.”
Over recent months the situation has gotten worse, the lawyer says, with some of Celia’s cell mates threatening her: “She’s a very empowered woman who is always protecting everybody’s rights. She has been threatened because she was defending another imprisoned activist who was being beaten.”
Shortages of medicine
Trans women, and LGBTI people in general, face great challenges in Nicaragua.
Braulio Abarca, a human rights lawyer and member of the Nicaragua Nunca Más Collective, says part of the problem lies in the lack of regulations protecting them from discrimination and hate crimes.
“Nicaragua does not have gender identity or hate crime laws. In 2007, a new article was included in the Penal Code with tougher punishment for crimes motivated by hatred. But even though the article exists, it is not applied in practice,” he explains.
The deep-seated discrimination behind the lack of legislation protecting trans women is also illustrated by the shortage of medicines in prisons. For many trans women who are undertaking hormonal replacement therapy, this can be particularly punishing.
Victoria says she met other trans women in La Modelo who were being denied medical treatment, including another activist who shared Victoria’s cell for five months.
“She was going through very traumatic moments in relation to her situation and her body. She was undergoing treatment and needed to see the doctor and a psychologist but all her requests were rejected, even though a judge ordered that they be granted,” recalls Victoria.
She also said that people living with HIV were often denied access to life-saving medication or that medicines were provided irregularly. This is particularly concerning in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Joint United Nation Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has warned that people living with HIV may be at a higher risk of suffering more serious symptoms if infected with COVID-19.
Trans people suffer distinct forms of repression in prison, just for being trans, for being visible
“I requested, on two occasions, to go to a medical centre to get an HIV test but I was never allowed to. That is very serious because there are people that are raped, there are people that have relations with the guards, and condoms are not allowed in the prison. HIV prevention is a very important issue that must be addressed in prisons.”
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns have spread like wildfire. Martinez García says Celia, who suffers from high pressure, told her she was coughing and had a fever and body aches.
“We asked the judge on several occasions for Celia to be given access to a doctor and it was never allowed. She always complains of pains. She has hypertension, she needs her medicine but they aren’t giving it to her,” she explains.
“COVID-19 has been used as a weapon against imprisoned activists,” the lawyer adds. “Many have gotten the virus because of the authorities’ neglect, overcrowding and lack of potable water. They aren’t being tested so there’s no evidence, but prisons are plagued with this pandemic.”
In what some saw as a bid to tackle mounting criticism for what was seen as them downplaying the impact of the pandemic, the Nicaraguan government ordered the release of 4,515 people, including older adults and those with chronic illnesses, between April and May. Another 1,605 people were released from nine prisons in mid-July.
There are still more than 80 people currently behind bars as punishment for their political activism, including Celia, who did not make the list.
Dr. Jeremy Cruz, a doctor who provides medical care to trans women, says suspending hormonal replacement treatment for trans people in jail can have serious consequences.
“The person stops living with the secondary sexual characteristics that they wanted to change, and anxiety, substance consumption and depression increase,” he explains. “This can lead to increasing suicide rates.”
The pandemic makes the situation a lot worse, particularly for those living with HIV, who might not have full access to their treatment and become a lot more vulnerable.
“Every time the medicine is suspended, a patient could suffer the consequences and then require a much more complex treatment, leaving them at risk of resisting the retrovirals and put their lives in danger,” Cruz explains.
Faced with the prospect of contracting COVID-19, Celia’s lawyer demanded that the authorities send her home. Yet she remains behind bars. Meanwhile reports of arbitrary arrests continue to emerge, as the Nicaraguan authorities keep filling the prisons with those who dare to speak out against government policies.
And even being released from prison does not mark the end of the harassment that activists face in Ortega’s Nicaragua. Victoria, who was released in June 2019 as part of an amnesty law, says she still has to hide in public places out of fear.
“I sometimes feel like I’m still a prisoner. When I go out I sometimes have to wear a costume, a hat and glasses, and avoid mentioning my name because of the latent fear that I could be identified as a member of the opposition,” she says.
“I feel I’m no longer part of society, that my right to be Nicaraguan has been taken away. It’s a very unfair punishment.”