The complete isolation imposed onthe latest political prisoners by the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo amounts to “a form of torture”, according to experts in human and criminal rights. The authorities have denied these prisoners “all the legal protections,” these sources add. The most current prisoners include presidential hopefuls, political and civic leaders, prominent members of the private sector, a journalist, two former NGO employees and a personal chauffer.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office, the national police and the courts have issued official statements confirming the detention of 28 people – 25 in the prison system and 3 under house arrest. However, for a number of weeks – in some cases, over 50 days – they’ve been denied family visits or the right to meet with their lawyers, even though these are rights contemplated in the Nicaraguan laws and the Constitution.
“If we look at this conduct in the light of other human rights standards, (…) we discover that while this detention lasts, the prisoners are actually in a situation of forced disappearance,” states Uriel Pineda, a specialist in Human Rights.
A state of forced disappearance is characterized by the existence of two elements, Pineda explains: a detention carried out by the authorities, followed by the concealment of the prisoners. In the case of the latest political prisoners: “nothing is known with certainty about their physical integrity or the state of their health. The fact that they’re being held in isolation also brings up the theme of torture.”
The official story
The regime justifies locking up these political prisoners by arguing that there’s been a change made to the Code of Criminal Procedures. The “reform” establishes that a person can remain detained up to 90 days for “investigation”. Criminal rights specialist Maria Oviedo considers this reform unconstitutional and a complete violation of human rights.
The reform “is a serious violation of the presumption of innocence and of due process,” Oviedo declares. “We [the Permanent Human Rights Commission] warned at the time it was passed that it was going to be used by the regime as a political arm, to persecute the opposition,” she recalls.
The reform to the Criminal Procedural Code “makes no sense”, according to Oviedo. She notes that previous to the modification there was no jail term stipulated in Nicaraguan legislation for an investigation. “It’s illogical to detain a person for investigation. The logical procedure is that the National Police retain the capacity to investigate a person and submit them to a legal process, but only when there’s an established probability, when there are presumptions that this person has committed a crime,” she clarifies.
The regime “has lost all shame”
According to Nicaragua’s penal laws, a person who is detained for “investigation” or found guilty of having committed some crime enjoys a series of inalienable rights that are valid for all human beings. However, the lawyers specify, this regime has run roughshod over all those rights, and is applying the law very unequally.
“The only thing people should lose while detained is their right to freedom. The right to life, the right to physical integrity, the right to human dignity, the right to a defense, the right to religious counsel, the right to see family, all these remain inalienable rights, fundamental rights of every human. They must be respected,” noted Oviedo.
However, in the case of these latest political prisoners, their families haven’t seen them and they haven’t been allowed to receive food sent from home. They’ve only been permitted two liters of water a day. They also haven’t been allowed to meet with their defense lawyers. The courts have denied all the legal appeals that have been filed, including “habeus corpus” petitions. The prisoners’ files have also been kept hidden.
Attorney Pineda affirms that the regime has left these political prisoners totally defenseless, to the point where “there’s not even a minimal simulation of legality that would allow a point of analysis.”
He believes that the international commitments that Nicaragua has signed allow the international bodies to intervene in this type of situation.
“The main mechanism that’s already been activated is the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The matter could also be brought before the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions. Still, we’re in a situation where the regime has lost all shame, and since the regime has been so brazen, these international mechanisms have also lost effectiveness,” Pineda comments.
The Inter-American Human Rights Court itself has already demanded the immediate liberation of a half-dozen of the detainees. Several of them also have provisional and protective orders from the court. All of these measures have been ignored by the Ortega regime.
Definitions and legal processes outside the law
There are several reasons that the defense lawyers have been able to do almost nothing for the political prisoners. Among these, the specialists note, is that the Police, the Public Prosecutor and the Judicial Powers have violated due process and have even held “secret” hearings that aren’t contemplated in the law.
“Paradoxically, these hearings are called Special Hearings for the Protection of Constitutional Guarantees, although none of the constitutional guarantees are upheld there. They take place in absolute secrecy. We, the lawyers, aren’t permitted to have access.
In the “Nicarao” database system, the digital system in which any attorney can consult the case number, there’s no data on these cases,” said Maria Oviedo.
The lack of information regarding the Special Hearings for the Protection of Constitutional Guarantees keeps the lawyers from finding out what charge the Public Prosecutor brought, or what was their basis for entering a request to extend the investigative period to ninety days.
“The reform to the Penal Processing Code states that a judge can authorize a period of investigation between 15 and 90 days. Strangely, here the judge has used that maximum upper limit of 90 days to impose arbitrary detention on all these people,” cites Oviedo.
The attorney is clear that “these Special Hearings for the Protection of Constitutional Guarantees isn’t contemplated within the Code of Criminal Procedures.” Such hearings “don’t even correspond to any known procedure, because the procedure – according to our procedural norms in criminal matters – begins with the preliminary hearing.”
Since it’s not contemplated within the procedural norms, “we could say that it’s a pretrial [hearing]. A hearing that’s totally in violation of constitutional rights and human rights, because [those detained] have no legal status. They don’t know what legal step is in progress, or what’s going on, because it’s being done behind the backs of all the sectors that could intervene,” she specifies.
“Crimes against humanity are still ongoing”
In the face of this new repressive wave, the only option left to the human rights organizations, the opposition and the victim’s families is to exhaust all legal options and document what’s happening in the country, Uriel Pineda points out.
“That documentation is of vital importance,” he stresses, “because it allows for an international denunciation, it establishes the first draft of historic memory, and at the same time aids the search for truth and access to justice in the future, when there’s a democratic transition in the county.
Meanwhile, the international organizations continue documenting the crimes against humanity committed in Nicaragua. “These detentions the regime is carrying out patently constitute a system of forced disappearance. It’s part of a government policy, part of a government strategy with its aims clearly defined. Hence, it fits the definition of a crime against humanity,” Uriel Pineda asserts.
“In Nicaragua, not only were crimes against humanity committed [in the past], but they continue being committed, as the regime continues to implement a policy of persecuting dissenters. If that policy of persecution leads to tortures, if it leads to arbitrary detentions, if it leads to assassination, we’re still, unfortunately, in the presence of crimes against humanity,” concludes Pineda.