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Human Rights Watch Finds “Widespread Impunity” in Nicaragua

The organization accuses the Ortega-Murillo regime of intensifying the repression and demands justice for the victims

Riot Police patrolling Managua

Riot Police patrolling a Managua street, near one of the banking centers. Photo: Confidencial

15 de enero 2024

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The Human Rights Watch World Report 2024 was presented in the United States on Thursday, January 11.  The report notes the unflagging abuse of power on the part of the Nicaraguan regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo and questions the “generalized impunity” in the country.

The organization highlighted that in the last year the regime has intensified its onslaught against anyone perceived as a critic, including members of the Catholic Church, and has dismantled the civic spaces.


They also noted the massive closure of independent media, non-governmental organizations and universities, thus “violating freedoms of expression and association and restricting the right to education.”

The report puts special emphasis on the persistence of problems such as the total ban on abortion, the attacks on the indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and widespread impunity for serious human rights violations.

These are the principal findings of the HRM report in their section on Nicaragua:

Persecution of Critics

As of October, 81 people perceived as government critics remained in detention, a Nicaraguan rights group reported, most charged with “undermining national integrity’ and ‘propagating fake news.”

In February, the government stripped 317 people of their nationality, including 222 political prisoners the government expelled to the US, labeling them as “traitors” and confiscating their assets. The decision, which violated international human rights law, left many stateless.

Authorities removed birth certificates and academic records of some of those expelled from the civil registry, impeding the right to access personal information. They also erased critics’ personal data from the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security, depriving many of their pensions. In May, the Supreme Court permanently suspended the licenses of 25 lawyers and notaries, ruling that because they were now considered “foreigners,” they could no longer exercise their profession in Nicaragua.

Attacks on Religious Freedom

Attacks on the Catholic Church, which began in 2018, have escalated.

In August 2022, police officers detained Bishop Rolando Alvarez, an outspoken government critic, and charged him with “undermining national integrity” and “propagating fake news.” In February, Alvarez refused to be expelled and a judge sentenced him to 26 years in prison. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported in June that Álvarez was being held incommunicado.

In May, the police announced that authorities were investigating the Catholic Church for alleged money laundering and had frozen several dioceses’ bank accounts.

In August, authorities canceled the legal registration of the Jesuit-run Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), seizing its assets and leaving thousands of students in limbo. The closure brings the number of universities shut down since December 2021 to 28.

In October, the government released 12 Catholic priests and sent them to Rome, following what it described as an “agreement with the Vatican.”

Authorities also banned the 2023 Easter processions and closed the Jesuit religious order in August, confiscating its properties. They also continued to expel foreign priests and nuns.

Freedom of expression and association

Human rights defenders, journalists, and critics are targets of death threats, assaults, intimidation, harassment, surveillance, online defamation campaigns, and, as discussed above, arbitrary detention, prosecution, and deprivation of nationality.

Authorities had closed over 3,500 NGOs as of November 2023, including women’s, religious, international aid, and medical groups. This represents roughly 50 percent of NGOs officially operative in Nicaragua before April 2018. The closures have cut off essential services to many beneficiaries.

Between 2018 and 2022, the government closed at least 57 media outlets, 30 in 2022 and 2 in 2023, the Nicaraguan Platform of NGO Networks reported.

Abusive legislation enabled many of the closures. A 2020 “foreign agents” law, for example, allows the cancelation of legal status of organizations that obtain foreign funds for activities that “interfere in Nicaragua’s internal affairs.”

Between April and June, 23 journalists fled the country, civil society groups reported, bringing the total of media workers who fled Nicaragua since 2018 to 208.

Authorities have imposed restrictions to hinder several outlets’ operations, including censorship and blocking access to printing materials. Police have raided and seized assets from Confidencial100% Noticias, and La Prensa.

In August, a court sentenced journalist Victor Ticay to eight years in prison on charges of “undermining national integrity and disseminating false news.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples face discrimination, reflected in disproportionate poverty rates, illegal encroachment on their traditional territories, and persistent violence.

In October, the Supreme Electoral Council stripped the legal status of the Indigenous political party YATAMA, accusing the party of “undermining Nicaragua’s national integrity.” Police had detained two of YATAMA’s main leaders, Brooklyn Rivera and Nancy Henríquez, in late September. The whereabouts of Rivera, YATAMA’s only representative in Congress, remained unknown at time of writing, according to family members.

Between August 2022 and June 2023, OHCHR recorded eight violent attacks on Indigenous peoples, especially in the Mayangna Sauni As territory of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve.

In March, settlers attacked the Wilú community in the Mayangna Sauni As territory, killing 5 people, displacing 28 families, and setting fire to all buildings.

Settlers have taken approximately 21,000 hectares from the Miskitu people and forcibly displaced around 1,000, presumably serving forestry and mining interests. Death threats have forced some Indigenous authorities into exile, and the government has prevented some from returning to Nicaragua.

The Rama Kriol autonomous territory, which makes up two-thirds of the Indio Maiz biological reserve and is home to the Rama Indigenous people and Kriol Afro-descendant people, is also under heavy pressure from illegal cattle ranchers.

Impunity for the 2018 Repression

Police, in coordination with armed pro-government groups, repressed massive anti-government protests in 2018, killing at least 328 people, injuring some 2,000, and detaining hundreds. Authorities reported that 21 police officers were killed in the context of demonstrations.

Many protesters were detained for months, subjected to torture and ill-treatment, including electric shocks, severe beatings, fingernail removal, asphyxiation, and rapes. Serious violations of due process and other rights marred prosecutions against protesters.

No police officer has been convicted in connection with abuses related to the crackdown.

Rights of girls and women

Nicaragua has, since 2006, prohibited abortion under all circumstances. Those who have abortions face prison sentences of up to two years; medical professionals who perform them face up to six years. The ban forces women and girls to continue unwanted pregnancies, putting their health and lives at risk.

Restrictive abortion laws, compounded by the lack of information and comprehensive sexuality education, impose barriers to identifying sexual violence. In May 2019, NGOs submitted the cases of “Susana” and “Lucía,” two girls who survived sexual violence and were forced to become mothers, to the UN Human Rights Committee.

Rates of domestic abuse, violence against women, and femicide—legally defined in Nicaragua as “the murder of a woman in the public or private sphere”—increased from August 2019 to December 2020, OHCHR reported.

The government did not publish figures on femicides and other forms of violence against women in 2022 and 2023. OHCHR reported 36 femicides between January and June 2023, including the 4 murders of girls under age 16.

Disability Rights

Discrimination against people with disabilities in Nicaragua is widespread. People with disabilities face severe problems in accessing schools, public health facilities, and other institutions. Under Nicaraguan law, 2 percent of public officials should be people with disabilities, but the quota is not respected, and there are few employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Asylum seekers and migrants

Between 2018 and June 2022, more than 260,000 Nicaraguans, over 4 percent of the estimated population, fled, mostly to Costa Rica and the United States.

Many have been forced to leave their country due to political persecution and the lack of opportunities.

Key International actors

In April, the United Nations Human Rights Council renewed for two years the mandates of the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua and the reporting mandate of the OHCHR. Previously, the Group of Experts had released a report in March finding reasonable grounds to believe that the authorities had committed crimes against humanity, including murder, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, forced deportation, and persecution on political grounds.

Pope Francis called Ortega’s government a “grotesque dictatorship” in March. The Vatican closed its embassy in Nicaragua in April after the government suggested suspending diplomatic relations.

In September, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk reported a “continued and widespread deterioration of human rights” and that the government keeps “punishing and locking out those who voice their views” and “intensifying the country’s isolation”.

No international monitoring bodies have been allowed to enter Nicaragua since 2018, when the authorities expelled the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua, the IACHR-appointed Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, and OHCHR.

In July, Nicaragua participated in the European Union-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (EU-CELAC) summit. It was the only country that did not support a paragraph in the summit’s final resolution expressing concern about the war in Ukraine. Russia has supplied Nicaragua with military equipment and security infrastructure in the past years.

In September, the board of the UN Green Climate Fund (GCF) temporarily suspended disbursements for Bio-CLIMA, an environmental project, citing “instances of policy non-compliance.” Bio-CLIMA had the stated objective of reducing deforestation and strengthening resilience in Bosawas and Río San Juan Biospheres, but the Nicaraguan NGO Fundación del Rio reported a lack of free, prior, and informed consent from Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. A final decision regarding the suspension of funds is expected earlier in 2024.

The US State Department’s Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors Report, released in July, imposed sanctions on the attorney general and parliamentary leaders. As of March 2023, the US Treasury Department had imposed asset-blocking sanctions on 11 entities and 43 people, including members of the government, legislature, and judiciary. In April, the US State Department sanctioned three judges who had helped strip the aforementioned 317 Nicaraguans of their citizenship; between August and September, it sanctioned 200 municipal officials accused of human rights violations in connection with the closures of UCA and the Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE).

The EU renewed sanctions on 21 individuals and 3 state-linked entities in October. In June, the European Parliament strongly condemned “the Nicaraguan regime’s widespread perpetration of systematic and deliberate human rights violations against its population for purely political reasons” and called for the release of all arbitrarily detained political prisoners.

The United Kingdom and Canada have respectively sanctioned 13 and 35 individuals implicated in human rights violations.

In November 2021, Nicaragua announced its withdrawal from the Organization of American States (OAS). The decision took effect in November 2023. The OAS Permanent Council said in a resolution adopted in November that it will continue “paying special attention to the situation in Nicaragua.”

The Human Rights Watch 2024 report on Nicaragua can be found at: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2024/country-chapters/nicaragua. The complete HRW World Report 2024 is at: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2024.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.

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Redacción Confidencial

Confidencial es un diario digital nicaragüense, de formato multimedia, fundado por Carlos F. Chamorro en junio de 1996. Inició como un semanario impreso y hoy es un medio de referencia regional con información, análisis, entrevistas, perfiles, reportajes e investigaciones sobre Nicaragua, informando desde el exilio por la persecución política de la dictadura de Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo.

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