After imposing a coup d'état in the Supreme Court, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, using the police as their proxy, have been carrying out a purge of more than 150 high-ranking officials at all levels of the Judicial branch. With the de facto dismissal of three Supreme Court justices –Alba Luz Ramos, Yadira Centeno and Virgilio Gurdián– ten vacancies in the 16-member Supreme Court will have to be filled in the coming weeks.
"They are going to reward appeals court judges, as well as judges involved in the sentencing of political prisoners. Names are already being mentioned as potential justices to create a Court entirely subservient to the interests of the Ortega Murillo family," according to economist and former prisoner of conscience Juan Sebastian Chamorro, interviewed in Esta Semana together with constitutional lawyer Azahalea Solís. Solís warns that with the destruction of the country's institutionality and the transfer of the Public Registry to the Attorney General's Office, "the property conflicts that will emerge in the future will be very dangerous because they are the result of illegal acts."
In the two weeks since the police removal of Supreme Court president Alba Luz Ramos, there has been a massive purge of the Court. More than a hundred officials have already been de facto expelled, including magistrates, appeals court and other judges, and department directors. What is the significance of the ousting of the president and the purge of the Supreme Court?
Azahalea Solís: Politically, it signals the increased centralization of power in the hands of Ortega –and mainly of Murillo–, for sure. Legally, it really is a coup d'état. The people who have been removed from the highest levels of the Judiciary have also been participants in the destruction of institutionality in Nicaragua, which is what has finally brought the situation to this point.
I compare it to the issue of femicide. That is, when a woman is killed, she has already lived through many years of violence. In other words, it started with a punch, with a scratch. In this case, this level of destruction – which is like an atomic bomb against the institutionality of the country – began with the first anomalies that the judges accepted based on their own political calculations.
The purge at the Supreme Court
Some of the ousted officials have pointed out that these governmental actions are illegal. Some of the expulsions have even been carried out by plain-clothes police officers who tell the official being ousted: "By orders of compañera Rosario, your contract has been terminated. Hand over your cell phone and your computer." It's a political intervention, but this institution had already experienced political intervention.
Juan Sebastian Chamorro: That's right, and I believe it's kind of besides the point to try to analyze the legal aspects of how this is being done, taking into account that Ortega has acted in total illegality in these last five years. What this really is is a takeover of the Supreme Court of Justice, stripping it of important authority, such as authority over the Public Registry of Property and Commerce. But there's also a component related to corruption. This is not a cleansing of corrupt officials within a corrupt justice system. This is a transfer of the corruption that existed in the Judicial branch, to the Ortega Murillo family. That is to say, they are eliminating a series of fiefdoms that the Court and its justices had to centralize the corrupt acts under the power of the dictator's family.
You have mentioned the co-responsibility of the justices, but this purge broadly affects different levels of officials within the Supreme Court system. What impact is this having among public servants of the Court, of other branches of government and in the government as a whole?
Azahalea Solís: The damage to the country is immeasurable because while they're getting rid of a lot of people who don't have political responsibilities, but may be part of the justices' fiefdoms, they're also getting rid of people who aren't part of the fiefdoms but who have worked in the Judiciary for a long time.
What they're doing scares me, just as the confiscation of the Historical Institute of the UCA scared me. They are taking over the records of the Court, the lawyers' records, trial records. What is going to be left afterwards? What are we going to have to do to recover all this? The historical memory of the country's institutionality, of the judicial system and judicial practice, will simply be left in ruins. And it seems to me this should be a central concern of the political forces in Nicaragua.
How is the Court functioning now? There are 16 justices and at least ten vacancies. There are two who are dead, one who broke ranks, two who resigned, others who were laid off, and others who are simply being removed from their positions. Can the chambers of the Court have a quorum, deal with appeals, issue decisions? And on the other hand, can the Court function in this way administratively?
Azahalea Solís: Nothing is as it should be. The Court has not been operating legally for a long time now. The reports by different national and international human rights commissions have raised the issue of the lack of independence of the Judiciary as a very serious situation. The Judiciary really has not been operating legally for a long time.
I imagine the Court will continue to function de facto, as we have seen in the public statement by Mr. [Marvin] Aguilar. How can what he is doing be legal? Why has he taken over as acting president of the Court? The truth is that what he’s doing is having an effect.
We have an accumulation of illegalities committed by the highest court of justice in the country, and it will continue to operate completely de facto. In other words, the regime will not have any scruples in bringing in any of those judges they appointed at another time, as it happened with the enormous illegality of the Supreme Court decision that declared the Constitution unconstitutional.
In a few weeks or months, the Executive will fill these vacancies with the approval of the National Assembly. In the corridors of the Court, there is already talk that some appeals court judges will be rewarded, such as Ernesto Rodriguez, Octavio Rothschuh, and Henry Morales. It is also mentioned that some judges who sentenced political prisoners, or loyal legislators, could also be rewarded. We could have a situation similar to the Supreme Electoral Council, where all the officials are loyal to Rosario Murillo. What can be expected of what will be the new Supreme Court of Justice?
Juan Sebastian Chamorro: This assault on the Judiciary has to be seen in the context of a much broader strategy. It is not that the police simply arrived and forcibly pushed the justices out. These were deliberate acts, planned in advance, to make a profound change. And what makes me say this is, in fact, the constitutional reform sent to the National Assembly.
The dismissals –the removal of these justices– clearly indicate that they are leaving empty seats to be filled. Regarding who will fill them, according to what we’ve seen recently, I think there will be 50% men and 50% women. All of them, both the men and the women, are going to have to fulfill the fundamental requirement of absolute obedience to the presidential couple. And I emphasize that we’re talking about the couple, because Ortega is fully aware of everything that’s going on. He is aware of it and, together with his vice dictator, is carrying out all these actions according to this developing plan.
I believe they are going to reward appeals court judges, as well as judges involved in the sentencing of political prisoners. Names are already being mentioned as potential justices to create a Court totally subservient to the interests of the Ortega Murillo family. The Court will also have less authority because it’s clear that being in charge of the Public Registry of Property gave the justices a degree of power in terms of decisions in important cases. Now there will be absolute verticalism. This is part of the plan, to consolidate the already absolute control that is intolerant of any kind of independent thinking by a magistrate or judge; they will simply receive orders and carry them out with military discipline.
This is a pretty clear message to public officials, especially as we watch officials being fired. No matter how servile you’ve been and how useful you are to the dictatorship, in the end you will end up being fired.
The appeals court judge, Marta Quesada, was the one who shelved the Zoilamerica case. What better service could she have given to Ortega and Rosario Murillo than that? And we can already see how this dictatorship has gotten rid of her simply because she is not 100% aligned with the interests of the family.
But the Court had already experienced political intervention. There are people who say that one of things that’s behind the removal of officials is that it is focusing, in one way or another, on those who had a greater degree of loyalty to Daniel Ortega than to Rosario Murillo, because of the power struggle going on between the presidential couple. Others say that this process of dynastic succession is already beginning, in which all the personnel of the Court, the new justices who will be coming in and those that remain, have to stand at attention and show their total loyalty to Rosario Murillo.
Juan Sebastian Chamorro: It is true that the Supreme Court was politically controlled by Ortega and Murillo, but it was also true --and independent investigative journalism has reported on this—that certain fiefdoms existed in the Court, such as that of Ileana Pérez, of Alba Luz Ramos, of other justices who took on and acted on particular issues. The case of Ileana Pérez, the most notorious, had a lot to do with properties in the south of Nicaragua that were seized from drug traffickers, for example. She was allowed certain freedom to be corrupt. Other justices were also allowed to continue operating with some freedom. Now we are talking about a more vertical totalitarian system where anything that is going to happen has to first get El Carmen's authorization.
Justice reform in the transition to democracy
In a transition toward democracy, how can the judicial system –the one that is currently being consolidated– be reformed?
Azahalea Solís: Even though the legal system itself is not the reason for the situation we are analyzing today in terms of what’s happening in the Supreme Court, dealing with the legal system is in fact fundamental for Nicaragua’s future. We cannot pretend we haven’t seen how month after month, year after year, the institutionality of this country has been demolished. Nicaraguan citizens must value institutionality. People might say “Politics and laws don’t put food on my table!” But the fact is they do put food on your table, and they also take it away. We need to understand that constitutional norms are what guarantees that we can be at home eating tortillas with beans, at home at our dinner table. That’s something we can’t do now, because the regime has been destroying the institutionality of our country, and has destroyed absolutely everything.
The Constitution doesn’t mean anything anymore. The procedures are worthless, the justices are worthless. So it’s very important that our citizens clearly understand that institutionality –checks and balances on power-- is what guarantees us to be able to live in our country, work in our country, sleep in our own beds.
In terms of the opposition political forces, we must develop a process, because the property conflicts that are going to emerge in the future are going to be very dangerous, since they are the result of illegal acts. There cannot be any transition process that does not take into account the transformations that have to be made in the Constitution and in the Supreme Court and in the Judiciary as a whole.
Above all, we need to make sure that the Police as an institution is reevaluated. The Police cannot have more power than a court of justice. That is a total outrage.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated our staff. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.