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A clarion call for action in Nicaragua

The Ortega regime is betting that the holiday season and domestic priorities will keep the world from realizing the full extent of its barbarity in suppressing peaceful dissent. Intrepid human rights investigators have just released a report to ensure that doesn’t happen.
21 Dic 2018 – 03:38 PM EST
Demonstrators wave flags during a protest against police violence and the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua April 23, 2018. Crédito: Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas

On Wednesday evening the Ortega government showed its true colors once again as it unilaterally expelled two human rights bodies tied to the Organization of American State’s human rights arm. This latest attempt by the government to silence independent investigations and reporting about the violence and instability that has engulfed the country since April is further evidence that Nicaragua is sinking into a morass of gross human rights violations and authoritarian rule.

Its self-proclaimed “revolutionary” government continues to betray Nicaraguans’ legitimate democratic desires, meeting peaceful dissent with bullets and torture. The international community is beginning to take notice as evidenced by the U.S. Congress’ passage last week of the Magnitsky NICA Act. But more attention and reaction by the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations, and hemispheric governments is required.

Fortunately, four courageous human rights leaders from the InterAmerican Commission for Human Rights, an organ of the OAS, reported their findings today after six months of investigation. What they describe is horrifying and provides further evidence that Sandinista President Daniel Ortega and his Vice President (and wife) Rosario Murrillo, have openly turned against their own people in a desperate attempt to hold on to power.

Unexpectedly receiving permission from the Nicaraguan government to travel to the country, the experts investigated the unrest and violence between April 18 and May 30, 2018. This proscribed six-week period saw the worst of the country’s civil disorder, when a stable albeit poor Nicaragua quickly unraveled after two relatively minor public protests were met with disproportionate and overwhelming force by Nicaraguan police and paramilitary units. The repression triggered sustained nationwide protests from nearly all sectors of society including students, environmentalists, small farmers, and feminists - many once aligned with the Ortegas – as well as many in the Catholic Church and the private sector who had reached various accommodations with the Ortegas over time.

With a mandate to investigate cases of alleged human rights violations, the experts also heard the government’s allegations that the entire episode was the fault of ideological conservative extremists, backed by Washington and unspecified “capitalist imperialists,” who sought to undermine the Sandinista revolution and effect regime change.

While the Nicaraguan government tolerated the investigators’ presence, it failed to cooperate with their mission. Information sought by the human rights lawyers was either outright denied or promised but never provided. The experts group was not permitted access to any government authorities.

They did, however, speak with victims. Their testimonies are as disturbing as they are devastating in their indictment of the Ortega regime. In sum, they paint a picture of wanton state abuse of authority.

Survivors of the repression spoke about their experiences and the harsh treatment meted out by the government, as they sought the truth about missing loved ones and justice for their country. They discussed conditions of incarceration and mistreatment by jailers. They spoke of being blocked from burying their dead for fear of reprisals.

The group’s report examines over one hundred cases of assassination, displacement, imprisonment and torture carried out by the government during the April to May period. It describes the context in which nominally democratic institutions – police, prosecutors, courts –have been intentionally weakened by the Ortega regime, leading to widespread impunity for state agents responsible for the violations. Of all the cases examined, only nine have gone to trial. Not surprisingly, several of those involve the government prosecuting dissidents and protestors it calls “terrorists.”

In the aftermath of this brutal crackdown, the Ortega government has further weakened the democratic and peaceful protest movement by criminalizing its attempts to express any public criticism. Ortega and his puppet congress rushed through laws that now define as terrorism almost any protest against the government, a complete vitiation of the rights to free speech and assembly found in the Nicaraguan constitution. Last week, a number of leading civil society organizations, including human rights groups, independent journalists, and think tanks had their legal status revoked, and their offices ransacked. The OAS experts examined 14 cases involving the criminalization of protest and found that due process guarantees were violated by Nicaraguan prosecutors and the judiciary in every single case.

Finally, the expert’s report makes a series of recommendations that serve as a roadmap for Nicaragua and the international community to return a semblance of transparent and democratic civil order to the country. Key among them is the formation of a special prosecutors office comprised of national and international investigators and prosecutors to ensure accountability results.

Among the reasons this report must be taken so seriously is the credibility of its authors. Claudia Paz y Paz is the former Attorney General of Guatemala who tried that nation’s former strongman – Efrain Rios Montt – for genocide in her country. Amérigo Incalcaterra has extensive experience working in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and served as Deputy Commissioner of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Sofía Mache is a Peruvian human rights defender who has served on her nations’ Truth and Pablo Parenti is an Argentine federal prosecutor with two decades’ experience trying crimes against humanity.

Their work in Nicaragua is an example to all who believe human rights transcend ideological and political divides, and that all governments, even progressive revolutionary or conservative military dictatorships, must be held to universal standards for treating their citizens. Now is time for the international community to follow the InterAmerican Commission and the OAS Secretary General’s lead and join arms with the victims of repression in Nicaragua to demand justice and respect for their basic human rights.

Eric L. Olson is a Latin American security and human rights expert and Director of the Seattle International Foundation's Central America - DC Platform. John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision consultant.