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Nine Nicaraguan Lawyers Receive International Award

Catalonia (Spain) Bar Association gives international award to nine Nicaraguan defense lawyers for their courage

Ilustración: Confidencial

Carlos F. Chamorro

14 de mayo 2024

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The Bar Association of Catalonia will award nine Nicaraguan lawyers –among them former political prisoners, exiles, attorneys stripped of their citizenship or under house arrest– with the International Award for Courage, in recognition of their work in defense of the human rights of Nicaraguans.

The awardees are Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, Álvaro Leiva, María Oviedo, Gonzalo Carrión, Yonarqui Martínez, Ana Margarita Vijil, Róger Reyes, Mónica López Baltodano, and Uriel Pineda.


Yonarqui Martínez, one of the award winners, will attend the ceremony on June 20 in Sabadell, Barcelona, Spain. She explained that "we would all like to be there, but not everyone is able to go. This [award] is further proof of the solidarity of fellow attorneys all over the world."

What does this recognition mean for you? Both of you have been in exile and stripped of your citizenship for several years now. 

Yonarqui Martínez: It truly was unexpected. It demonstrates the resistance that we human rights defenders still have and –thank God– the recognition of these institutions and the relationships we've had with them over the years. Remember we've been trying to document and denounce what is happening in Nicaragua since 2018. [The announcement] was a surprise, and it's thanks to the recognition and participation of each of our clients who trust us daily to denounce their situation and document the Ortega-Murillo regime.

Gonzalo Carrión: I connect with this [award] as an expression of solidarity by the Bar Association of Catalonia, and of their close relationship to what is happening in Nicaragua, with the reality of Nicaragua. Personally I've been working for more than 30 years in defense of human rights, and these last six years have been particularly difficult.

I receive [the award] with humility and with the commitment to reaffirm my activism, regardless of what the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship has been doing to us, and against the Nicaraguan people.

Yonarqui, for several years you defended political prisoners as a lawyer for the Permanent Human Rights Commission, and also as an independent lawyer, putting both yourself and your family at risk. Was there any specific court case or government action that forced you to go into exile?

Yonarqui Martínez: There were many reasons [for going into exile], but the last straw was that it became impossible to practice law and defend clients. I couldn't be [in Nicaragua] because it was a risk to my freedom and a risk to my life. Unfortunately, I believe that all the lawyers whose license was taken away and who have gone through so many things, we all have had to evaluate our safety as part of making the decision.

The massacre in the Carlos Marx neighborhood

Gonzalo, you worked for many years at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, led by Dr. Vilma Núñez de Escorcia. The regime criminalized you after the massacre against the family in Barrio Carlos Marx in 2018. What happened in that case, why did they involve you and accuse you, and what has happened six years later?

Gonzalo Carrión: When the massacre happened in the Carlos Marx neighborhood – in which six family members of three generations, including the grandfather of two children and the children's parents were murdered–, I basically stumbled upon the scene with a team of colleagues. Even though it was a risky situation because paramilitaries operated in the area with the protection of the National Police, I approached the area of the fire, and arrived to see the conditions of that massacre several hours [after it happened]. We found a significant number of neighbors and [journalists] who were still documenting what had happened there. 

Six months later, the head of [the renowned jail] El Chipote, Commissioner General Luis Pérez Olivas, presented the massacre as a solved case, accusing young people he called delinquents of the "19th of April Movement" as the murderers. Pérez Olivas literally said that "the subject Gonzalo Carrión presented himself [at the scene and] immediately began giving statements to distort the facts." 

As a result, they accused me of participating in the crime of cover-up, even though I  obviously had nothing to do with what happened. This is one of the best documented crimes by journalists and human rights organizations. It was a crime against humanity that was repudiated internationally. Then, six months later, under pressure, they [the authorities] changed the narratives of the relatives of survivors and they involve me in it, and that forced me to hide out for ten days in Managua, and then leave on December 28 [2018] to Honduras, and on December 30 to San José, Costa Rica.

Is there any space, in the current context, for defense lawyers in Nicaragua? What is the situation of the more than 120 political prisoners who need defense representation to deal with the country's current machinery of convictions? 

Yonarqui Martínez: The situation for defense attorneys is not easy. The conditions aren't there, there's no security. There is no legal protection that indicates that the rights of lawyers would be respected. Their labor rights have been curtailed. Unfortunately, the political prisoners are the ones who suffer these reprisals by the regime. When the regime acts against the defense lawyers who are defending the imprisoned, and then are expelled, persecuted or threatened, the prisoners are the ones who are left without a real defense, because they are then represented by State-appointed lawyers, by the Public Defender's Office. For example, the case of the priest who had a lawyer assigned to him who was praising the administration of justice. 

So unfortunately, there is no legal security. There are defense lawyers who are courageously, almost clandestinely, trying to collaborate and help. Obviously it's not like before, but the prisoners are always receiving follow up. We are trying to help the families, advising the families. The situation has changed, it's very difficult, but it's our responsibility to stick with them until they are released.

Looking at the other side of the coin of this system of injustice in Nicaragua, how do you evaluate the work of the regime's judges and prosecutors who accuse and condemn the politically persecuted? Can they allege some kind of mitigating factor for carrying out orders?

Gonzalo Carrión: Absolutely not. There is no logical or legal justification. Giving political reasons only reveals the extent to which they have submitted to the will of the centralized power of the Ortega-Murillo family. The authorities of the Judiciary, from the highest level of the Supreme Court, to the judges of Appeals and judges at all levels, have surrendered to the will of the centralized power of the Ortega Murillo regime and contributed to the destruction of the Judiciary. In fact, this concentration and subordination had been going on since 2007, until [the regime] managed to absolutely destroy any expression of independence.

And even with all this, it's important to acknowledge the conduct of judges who have in fact tried to separate themselves from this absolute subordination which violates human rights in the country. There are many judges who have left the country because they tried to distance themselves from it. The result is that the Judicial branch is in complete ruins, just like all the branches of government. 

The pattern we're seeing is that because of the conditions that have worsened in recent years, there's very little possibility of material defense. Now hearings are not only being held in private –there are no more oral and public hearings–, but they are being held in the very places where people are being detained, deprived of their liberty.

More than 1,200 documented stories

Is it possible to continue to practice any kind of legal defense of human rights from exile? Can you practice your profession as a lawyer in exile?

Yonarqui Martínez: Yes, we certainly can and do continue. I continue to follow up with my clients. It's a team effort. There are still brave people, there are citizens committed to the cause, and this has helped us to get the information we need. We can write briefs and then different people can file them. It's not easy, but if documents continue to be filed, we can't stop following up. Let's remember that there are political prisoners who have already been sentenced. There's no further process once they are condemned –they're just in enforcement court–, but we're following up with them. For example, we have the case of Mr. Eliseo Jesús Castro Baltodano, who's still in the Lenín Fonseca hospital after he had a stroke. As lawyers we continue to follow up and file petitions.

Last week, the Collective of Human Rights Defenders "Nicaragua Never Again", of which you are a founder, commemorated five years of work from Costa Rica. What challenges does the collective face today?

Gonzalo Carrión: Even with the onslaught that has worsened in recent years –with banishments and dispossession of nationality and confiscations–, on our five year anniversary, we as a Collective reaffirm that we will not only continue to accompany the victims in their pain, but that we will also continue make sure their stories are not forgotten. We have more than 1,200 documented stories, 180 of which are stories of victims of torture. 

The challenges are to continue documenting, to improve documentation and registry to strengthen the accompaniment of victims in Nicaragua, including political prisoners and their family members who, despite the state of terror, continue to denounce violations – anonymously, but they continue to denounce. 

We need to strengthen this process of accompaniment and documentation when the victim decides to take action beyond what can be done in Nicaragua. Because at the same time, we continue our advocacy work at the international level, appearing before the Inter-American Commission and making use of the Inter-American regional mechanisms as well as the universal mechanisms.

If the victim wants to move forward, we will look for opportunities to accompany them in international legal actions, whether it be against the Nicaraguan government for violations of human rights or finding ways to bring criminal charges in other countries so that the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and human rights violations do not remain in impunity.

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

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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.

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