Nicaragua: Trumped-Up Charges Against Critics

Human Rights Watch September 20, 2021, 12:00AM EDT

Hazardous Detention Conditions, No Due Process, Arbitrary Prosecutions.

Lesbia Alfaro, mother of student leader Lesther Alemán, who went into exile after participating in protests against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's government in 2018, holds a portrait of her son during an interview with AFP in Managua, on September 14, 2021.© 2021 Photo by OSWALDO RIVAS/AFP via Getty Images.

(Washington, DC) – New evidence indicates that dozens of critics the Nicaraguan government arbitrarily detained for months, most of them accused of “treason,” are being held incommunicado and are often subjected to repeated interrogations and abusive conditions, including prolonged solitary confinement or insufficient food, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has charged many with serious crimes without providing substantiating evidence, strongly suggesting that these are politically motivated persecutions in retaliation for opposing the government.

The Nicaraguan government headed by President Daniel Ortega has arbitrarily detained 36 critics since late May 2021, in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for November 7. On August 31, following accusations that the critics had been victims of enforced disappearances because their whereabouts remained unknown, Nicaraguan authorities allowed brief family visits for the first time since their arrests. In late August, the Attorney General’s Office started filing charges against most of them in criminal proceedings that lacked basic due process guarantees. Charges, carrying prison sentences of 15 to 25 years, ranged from money laundering to, most commonly, “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.”

“In Nicaragua, President Ortega’s rush to detain critics in horrendous conditions on spurious grounds and without due process ahead of the November elections shows that he has no intention of losing,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Ortega’s government should immediately and unconditionally free all political prisoners, and the international community should keep up the pressure on the Ortega administration to increase the cost of its abusive practices.”

On September 7, the Attorney General’s Office ordered the arrest of Sergio Ramírez, a well-known writer and former vice president under Ortega, who is an outspoken critic of the current government. Ramírez fled Nicaragua in June after testifying in one of the cases against political opponents and remains abroad. The Attorney General’s Office has also prosecuted and ordered the arrest of several journalists and academics living or exiled abroad.

Since August, Human Rights Watch has conducted phone interviews with 19 people who have information about 28 of the 36 cases of people arbitrarily detained since late May. Human Rights Watch is withholding the identities of the detainees whose cases were discussed and of the interviewees for fear of reprisals. Human Rights Watch also reviewed official sources, including police records, Attorney General Office news releases, court documents, media reports, and publications by local and international human rights groups to corroborate their testimonies.

Family members who were finally able to see the detainees, in some cases after months, described abusive prison conditions, including insufficient food and limited outdoor exercise, daily interrogations without legal counsel present, and, for some, prolonged solitary confinement.

Prolonged solitary confinement – that is, solitary confinement that lasts 15 consecutive days or more – amounts to torture and is prohibited under international law, Human Rights Watch said.

Between May 28 and September 6, the government unleashed a wave of arbitrary arrests to pave the way for President Ortega’s re-election to a fourth consecutive term in November. Police arrested seven opposition presidential candidates and 29 government critics, including political opponents, journalists, human rights defenders, students, and business and community leaders. In some cases, police used violence during the arrests, including beating people who were not resisting arrest. Thirty-two of those arrested are being held at the Direction of Judicial Assistance prison (also known as El Chipote), where critics of the Ortega government have been tortured in the past, and four are under house arrest.

Nicaraguan authorities have initiated investigations against most of them for allegedly “asking for military interventions,” “organizing terrorist and destabilizing acts with funding from foreign powers,” “requesting, exalting, and applauding the imposition of sanctions against Nicaragua and its citizens,” and “inciting foreign interference in Nicaragua’s affairs.” Police cited provisions of a recent law prohibiting so-called “traitors,” defined in sweeping terms, from running for or holding public office. One presidential candidate was accused of “money laundering” through a press freedom organization, together with two other members of the organization.

Since February, an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure has allowed prosecutors to hold detainees for up to 90 days without charge, and in almost all cases involving government critics, the courts have permitted detention for up to 90 days.

Most critics have been prosecuted for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity” through procedures that lacked the most basic due process guarantees. Many have been held incommunicado for months without family visits or access to their lawyers, despite numerous petitions to the courts. The authorities barred the critics’ lawyers from participating in public hearings and imposed public defenders instead. For months, most lawyers had no access to court documents, despite repeatedly requesting them.

In cases where Human Rights Watch was able to review the charging documents, prosecutors had often failed to identify specific acts by the defendants to support the charges. The acts they did identify were often behavior that is protected by international human rights standards on freedom of expression and should not be criminalized.

In many cases, prosecutors repeated the same allegations verbatim against various people in different files. In every document Human Rights Watch reviewed, the prosecutors justified serious charges of undermining Nicaragua’s “national integrity” solely based on claims that the accused had given interviews to media outlets, shared WhatsApp messages, participated in meetings, or signed letters expressing their support for sanctions against Nicaraguan officials, calling for free elections, or demanding international condemnation of the government’s abuses.

Some detainees have chronic medical conditions or require regular access to medicine, yet judges have failed to answer petitions by their legal teams requesting access to medical examinations. Prison guards have sometimes received or requested medicines from relatives, but in some cases, authorities have refused to allow relatives to deliver medical supplies.

In addition to the 36 detentions carried out since late May 2021, Nicaraguan rights groups report that another 104 people perceived as critics were detained earlier and remained in detention as of August. Many had been held for over a year, and they faced similarly abusive detention conditions.