The human rights situation in Nicaragua has continued to decline over the past three months, with detainees being held in appalling conditions, civic space shrinking, and an “unprecedented” rise in people fleeing the country, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Thursday.
Delivering her latest update on the country to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Ms. Bachelet said scores of people remain locked up in the wake of political, human rights and electoral crises over the past four years.
🇳🇮#Nicaragua: @mbachelet updates #HRC50 on declining human rights situation, arbitrary detentions, dramatic reduction of civic space & thousands fleeing. She urges the Gov to uphold human rights obligations & immediately release those arbitrarily detained: https://t.co/sVm7ZDy2I5 pic.twitter.com/00WZgBU5FY— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) June 16, 2022
Widespread protests broke out in Nicaragua in April 2018 after President Daniel Ortega announced planned social security reforms. Hundreds were reportedly killed in the crackdown.
Release all detainees
Last year, dozens of political opponents were arrested ahead of the presidential election in November, which saw Mr. Ortega secure a fourth consecutive term in power.
“I take this opportunity to again urge the competent authorities to ensure the swift release of all people arbitrarily detained, and to guarantee their physical and mental integrity. Likewise, I strongly urge authorities that an independent verification of detention conditions be undertaken,” said Ms. Bachelet.
Citing civil society sources, the Human Rights High Commissioner reported that 173 people are being held in detention centres in connection with the 2018 crisis.
Another 50 people detained in the context of the 2021 elections are being held in conditions that contravene UN standards on the treatment of prisoners.
Children denied contact
The 39 men and 11 women were sentenced to up to 13 years and are disqualified from holding public office. Eleven are currently under house arrest.
Most were convicted of crimes that include spreading false news and/or undermining national integrity, while six were charged with money laundering and related offenses. Ms. Bachelet said the convictions were reportedly based on allegations that were not substantiated during the judicial proceedings.
“Most of these detainees remain deprived of their liberty in a police detention centre. This year, they have been allowed only four visits from their adult relatives, and children continue to be denied the right to have any type of contact with their parents in detention,” she said.
“Relatives have reported their loved ones are being held in inhumane conditions, with particular concern for those in need of urgent, permanent or specialized medical care, which authorities reportedly refuse to provide.”
Ms. Bachelet also expressed concern over the dramatic reduction of civic space in Nicaragua.
Silencing civil society
Parliament has shut down at least 454 organizations since November 2018, affecting not only national and international groups working in areas such as human rights, education, and development, but also medical and professional associations.
Academic freedom and the autonomy of universities have also come under threat. At least 12 institutions are now under State control after their legal status was arbitrarily cancelled. Additionally, academic programmes at all universities must now be approved by a central body.
“The authorities have claimed that the organizations and institutions affected failed to comply with their administrative duties and regulations related to money laundering and terrorist financing. We know however that their representatives have been prevented from defending their position with due process before an independent authority,” she said.
Furthermore, a new law effective last month has also made registration of non-profit organizations more difficult. It allows the Government full discretion to information about their funds, operations and beneficiaries. Other provisions prohibit engagement in political activities and limit “foreign members” to a maximum 25 per cent quota.
The socio-political, economic and human rights crises are also forcing thousands of people to seek a better life elsewhere.
“The number of Nicaraguans leaving the country is growing in unprecedented numbers, even higher than in the 1980s,” Ms. Bachelet told the Council.
In neighbouring Costa Rica, Nicaraguan refugee and asylum seeker numbers have doubled in the past eight months, with a total of 150,000 new applicants since 2018, representing three per cent of the overall population.
The United States is also witnessing an “unprecedented increase” in Nicaraguans intercepted at its borders. Numbers jumped from 3,164 in September 2022 to more than 92,000 this past April.
The 16,088 interceptions in March represent the highest recorded number to date for a single month, and eight times higher than recorded in March 2021.
Harassment and intimidation
Ms. Bachelet said her Office has also documented several cases of harassment and intimidation by the Nicaraguan authorities, putting the right to freedom of movement under grave threat.
“Passport renewals at a consulate abroad have been denied on some occasions, requiring the individuals to carry out the process in Nicaragua where their safety may be at risk,” she said.
“Nicaraguans intending to leave the country have also had their passports withheld without justification. Additionally, entry into the country of a Nicaraguan citizen has allegedly been denied.”
The Nicaraguan police have also resumed harassment of Catholic priests, she said. The Government has also ordered the Catholic Channel to be removed from cable television.
Last month, international media reported that Bishop Rolando Álvarez, a critic of the Ortega regime, began an “indefinite fast” inside a church after being followed by the police.
Uphold human rights
Ms. Bachelet pointed to “serious concerns” that the Government could be seeking to further deepen its repressive campaign against political opposition.
In April, two parliamentary commissions completed an analysis of the criminal legislation being used to persecute perceived opponents, which proposes to tighten penalties and introduce other repressive measures such as confiscation of assets.
“I strongly urge the Government of Nicaragua to uphold - not move further away from - its human rights obligations. I call on authorities to immediately cease policies which are today only serving to isolate the country and its people from the regional and international communities,” she said.