Lack of accountability for abuses in Nicaragua

Protests against the Nicaraguan Government Protests against the Nicaraguan Government © Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images.

This article constitutes a presentation of the Report “Crackdown in Nicaragua – Torture, Ill Treatment, and Prosecutions of Protesters and Opponents”, published by Human Rights Watch in June 2019.

In April 2018, President Daniel Ortega’s government announced changes to Nicaragua’s pension system, provoking street protests in several cities that quickly escalated in size and number, fueled by widespread discontent with his 12-year administration. Protesters were met with violence by the National Police and heavily armed pro-government groups, with more than 300 people killed and more than 2.000 injured.

Following these events, and with the aim to shed light on what happened after the crackdown in the streets - with particular regard to the abuses suffered by demonstrators during arrests and while in detention facilities - in September 2018 Human Rights Watch (HRW) conducted field research in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, interviewing a total of 75 people among victims, family members and eyewitnesses.

The cases examined by HRW turned out to be consistent with a pattern of systematic abuses reported by other international human rights bodies, such as the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). According to the cited 2019 Report, many of the people detained during the crackdown on protests were exposed to humiliating and degrading treatment and subjected to serious human rights violations that in some cases amounted to torture - including electric shocks, severe beatings, fingernail removal, asphyxiation, and rape.

Hundreds of detainees were also prosecuted for alleged crimes in connection with their participation in anti-government protests. On that occasion, serious violations of due process and other fundamental rights were encountered. In particular, protestors were reported to be held in incommunicado detention, subjected to closed door trials, and denied the right to confer privately with their defense lawyers. Furthermore, HRW found that, in several cases, the charges brought by the prosecutor’s office were not supported - and sometimes even contradicted - by the evidence presented.

Interviews also revealed that the National Police and pro-government groups started targeting those who were reporting on the crimes committed, including independent journalists and human rights defenders, subjecting them to harassment, intimidation, assault and arbitrary detention. Likewise, the Nicaraguan government was reported to have shut down critical news channels and subjected free press and independent media to cyber-attacks.

In this regard, it is important to stress that, under international human rights law, Nicaragua’s government has a specific obligation to prevent or punish serious human rights violations. Notwithstanding the above, at the time of writing, not a single investigation has been opened into members of security forces implicated in the cited abuses. On the contrary, it seems that President Ortega even promoted those top officials who bear responsibility for the crimes committed during the 2018 protests.

In this respect, the international community has an essential role to play to pressure the Nicaraguan government into addressing these violations, ensuring accountability and preventing the repetition of the crimes described in this Report. Targeted sanctions include inter alia imposing travel bans and asset freezes, as well as suspending all police funding, including any transfers of weaponry that could be used for committing other abuses.

Moreover, according to the principle of universal jurisdiction, national prosecutors can pursue individuals deemed to be responsible for certain core international crimes such as torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, even though they were committed elsewhere and neither the accused nor the victims are nationals of the country. Such prosecutions constitute an important part of international efforts to hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable, provide justice to victims, deter future crimes, and help ensure that countries do not become safe havens for criminals.


Written by Federica Pira


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