Starting this week, those accused of “hate crimes” in Nicaragua face the possibility life imprisonment sentence. In their second legislative session, the National Assembly approved a constitutional reform establishing the possibility of such life sentences. The “hate crimes law”, which contemplates such drastic sentences, was approved in November.
The change in the Nicaraguan Constitution has now put the finishing touches on the trio of punitive laws. The Ortega regime began calling for these laws in September.
Essentially, the reform added a new paragraph to Article 37 of the Constitution. Nicaragua’s Magna Carta had previously established a maximum sentence of thirty years in jail. The Assembly now added: “In exceptional cases, a sentence of life imprisonment will be imposed on the person found guilty of grave crimes, when there are concurrent circumstances of cruel, degrading, humiliating and inhumane hatred, producing consternation, disgust, indignation or repugnance in the national community.”
The amendment was passed during a special session. The assembly met in Ciudad Dario, birthplace of poet Ruben Dario, in honor of the 154th anniversary of his birth. The 70 deputies from the Sandinista party all voted in favor of the amendment. Thirteen deputies from the Liberal Constitutionalist Party voted against. Five deputies – from the Independent Liberal Alliance and the Independent Liberal Party – abstained.
“Hate crime” remains undefined
Now that the constitutional reform has been ratified, Congress must reform the Nicaraguan Penal Code. This is necessary so that judges and magistrates can apply it. According to National Assembly president Gustavo Porras, the issue will be a priority for the current legislature.
“We have to continue making the legal and legislative transformations and the legal ordering. This law is needed to defend ourselves and to defend our fellow Nicaraguans,” Porras declared. He previously referred to the constitutional reform as “an act of love”.
Vilma Nuñez, president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (Cenidh), emphasized the need for definition. The constitutional reform, she stated, “can’t be applied directly”. First, “there has to be a penal typification, where the crime is established and the sentence is established.”
In Nuñez’ judgement, the Penal Code reform must be explicitly laid out. “What are the hate crimes?” that are mentioned in the paragraph that was added to the constitution. “In Nicaragua, hate crime isn’t typified (…) it’s a recent concept,” she noted.
The human rights advocate also warned that this law “is one more instrument of repression,” for the Ortega regime. She doesn’t perceive “an intention to seek a way to detain the criminality that exists in the country”.
“The people cry out ‘to live in peace’”
National Assembly Deputy Irma Davila spoke in representation of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista bench. She argued that this reform had the support of “millions of Nicaraguans” who sent their signatures to the parliament. “The people are crying out to us to live in peace,” she said.
What went unmentioned by the Sandinista deputy is that the establishment of life in prison was ordered by President Ortega. On September 15, he publicly told the Supreme Court and the deputies to effect the constitutional reform. He asked for this reform to punish “hate crimes”, pointing to femicides of minors as examples.
However, on January 11, the ruler made it clear that the constitutional reform allowing life imprisonment is aimed elsewhere. It’s a measure to “punish” what his regime calls “acts of terrorism”. This is the crime his government has referenced to accuse, process and condemn those who participated in the April 2018 rebellion.
Between 2018 and 2019, the Ortega regime found hundreds of demonstrators guilty of the crime of terrorism. These government opponents were beaten and tortured in the National Penitentiary System. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights corroborated these anomalies, before being expelled from the country in December 2018.
Life imprisonment completes the trio of punitive laws
In the final trimester of 2020, the Ortega deputies approved two other laws ordered by the regime. First was the “Law of Foreign Agents”, and second the “Special Cybercrimes Law”, also referred to as the “Gag Law”. The assembly then passed the “Hate Crimes Law”, although it needed the Constitutional reform to become valid. Experts in Constitutional Law have warned that the trio of punitive laws will be applied selectively. They’ll be used against citizens or organizations that the ruling party finds “uncomfortable or annoying”.
Ortega’s deputies, acting as a bloc in the Assembly, bulldozed the laws through at dizzying speed. On October 15th, the “Law for the Regulation of Foreign Agents” was approved. Opponents consider this a violation of Nicaraguan’s human rights. It obligates both organizations and individuals who receive funding from outside the country to register as “foreign agents”. The law then terminates the right of those who register to participate politically, among other public freedoms.
A week later, on October 27th, 2020, the Sandinistas approved the “Gag Law” that seeks to silence the population. It’s a direct threat against the freedoms of speech and the press, and the use of social networks. The law establishes penalties of two to eight years for crimes such as the propagation of fake news. It mandates similar penalties for leaking or spreading confidential information from the institutions. Like the other laws, the definitions of terms like “fake news” in the “Gag Law” are left to the regime’s discretion.