Last Updated: Friday, 11 July 2014, 13:14 GMT

Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Nicaragua

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Publication Date 18 June 2009
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Nicaragua, 18 June 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a5f3017c.html [accessed 11 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political context

Since Mr. Daniel Ortega, the candidate for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional – FSLN), became President on January 10, 2007, there has been a marked increase in the trend to subordinate State institutions to the interests of the FSLN and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Constitucional – PLC), as well as an increased lack of a clear separation between the State and the political party, as illustrated for instance by the decision made by the President of the Republic to direct Government business from the FSLN secretariat.

Moreover, political pluralism was severely restricted during the November 2008 municipal elections due to a two-party system that left no room for other parties criticising the agreement made between the FSLN and the PLC, such as the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador – PC) and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (Movimiento Renovador Sandinista – MRS). The FSLN and the PLC shared out power quotas between themselves and so harnessed all the State institutions. This is how the legal representative of the PLC, Mr. Carlos Wilfredo Navarro Moreira, was able to call for the cancellation of opposition parties' legal personality on May 20, 2008 and, as a result, on June 11, 2008, the Supreme Electoral Council (Consejo Supremo Electoral – CSE) proceeded to cancel the legal personality of the MRS. It also declared that, despite its 100 years of existence, the PC had not met with the prior qualifying requirements to participate in the municipal elections. Both parties were therefore not able to participate in the November municipal elections.1

The municipal elections of November 9, 2008 were carried out in the absence of independent and impartial electoral observers as the Government refused to accredit national non-governmental electoral observers such as Ethics and Transparency (Etica y Transparencia) and the Institute for Development and Democracy (Instituto para el Desarrollo y la Democracia – IPADE). This was also due to the unprecedented failure of the CSE to invite some of the international observers that had traditionally monitored the elections over the past 15 years, including the European Union, the Organisation of American States and the Carter Centre. This provoked criticism from the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which deplored "the denial of accreditation to the national and international observers whose absence makes it difficult to evaluate the regularity of elections".2 Following the publication of the results, according to which the FSLN won 105 of the 153 municipalities, the opposition decided to demonstrate on November 18 to show their rejection of the results, which they considered to have been obtained through irregularities and fraud. Demonstrators were physically assaulted by FSLN supporters and Government employees, in particular by health workers and civil servants from the General Income Directorate (Dirección General de Ingresos – DGI).3 On the same day, the buildings of Radio Dario, Radio Metro Stereo and Radio Caricias in the city of León were raided and ransacked by about forty armed and hooded people. Throughout November, as the electoral process continued, at least twenty communication professionals were assaulted and injured.4

Worse still, in the context of these events, the Government reactivated anti-subversive groups resorting to violence (made up of FSLN militants, Government supporters and citizens with criminal records) both in the capital and in the regions. President Ortega also replaced various high-ranking civil servants in the police department who were close to the First Commissioner of the national police, Ms. Aminta Granera, Director General of the national police. In total, in 2008, 13 senior commissioners were forced into retirement, constituting an unprecedented event.5 This trend is worrying in the long-run since it could have negative repercussions on the defence of human rights.

Furthermore, President Ortega's Government tried to silence dissident voices and criticisms of Government policies through members of the Government who verbally assaulted demonstrators and human rights defenders as well as the Citizens' Councils (Consejos de Poder Ciudadano – CPC)6 who hampered the NGOs activities and physically assaulted defenders. In this context, 2008 saw numerous attacks against human rights defenders and attempts to obstruct their activities. In addition, the exclusion of human rights defenders from places and buildings devoted to the citizens' participation became common place. Many inter-institutional buildings used by civil servants, representatives of NGOs and social movements to discuss social problems were closed down and some were taken over by members of the CPC.7

At the international level, during its 94th session, held from October 13-31, 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council noted "with concern a growing number of reports alleging systematic persecution and death threats against human rights defenders by individuals, political groupings and bodies connected to the State authorities" and expressed its concern "at the de facto restrictions on the exercise by human rights organisations of their right to freedom of [association]". To that extent, the Committee recommended that "the State party should guarantee organisations of human rights defenders the right to freedom of expression and association in the conduct of their activities".8 Likewise, on December 18, 2008, the European Parliament called "on the Government of Nicaragua to take urgent measures to pacify the situation created, and ask[ed] the Nicaraguan authorities to respect the work of the human rights organisations".9

Attempts to discredit and control human rights organisations

In 2008, the authorities continued their verbal attacks against any human rights organisation or defender who dared to criticise the policies of President Ortega or his Government. These attacks were systematically and continuously taken up by the official or pro-Government media such as Canal 4, Radio Ya and Semanario El 19, which exacerbated the attitudes of Government supporters and put the lives of human rights defenders at risk. Defenders were described as "puppets of imperialism", "oligarchs", "traitors to the country" and "devils". Such was the case of the members of the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (Centro Nicaraguense de Derechos Humanos – CENIDH), who were labelled as "agents of imperialism" and "defenders of oligarchy" by television and radio programmes as well as by media close to the ruling party.10

In addition, the authorities took several measures to obstruct the work of human rights organisations and silence all criticisms. In September 2008, the Ministry of the Interior (Ministerio de Gobernación) ordered an investigation against 17 NGOs, including Oxfam Great Britain, the Investigation Centre for Communication (Centro de Investigación de la Comunicación – CINCO) 11 and the Independent Movement for Women (Movimiento Autonomo de Mujeres – MAM) for "money laundering" and "triangulating funds".12 During the penal investigation that followed the Deputy Minister of the Interior's complaint, the Deputy Public Prosecutor asked the NGOs to provide all their accounting documents linked to the use of donation funds from 2003 to 2008, while no complaint was lodged by donors. Moreover, on October 10 and 11, 2008, illegal searches were made on the premises of the CINCO and MAM organisations. Indeed, the warrant for the searches did not state what was being reproached to MAM representatives. The search of the MAM was ordered by Prosecutor José Abraham Rojas, whilst Prosecutor Douglas Vargas was responsible for the search of the CINCO. Both searches resulted in the confiscation of documents and IT material. The MAM search lasted 11 hours, after which the police took away three computer units in which the organisation stored all its financial and work-related information. In addition, 140 important documents for the NGO activities were confiscated. The computer units and the accounts documents were not returned to CINCO until January 27, 2009, i.e. more than three months later, and the items confiscated from MAM were not returned until January 28. It is worth mentioning that following the investigations, the Ministry of Interior called on representatives of the organisations to appear before the Public Prosecutor: Mr. Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Head of CINCO, Ms. Juana Jimenez, Head of MAM, and Ms. Sofia Montenegro, Director of CINCO and a member of MAM,13 were indeed summoned, under threats of incarceration if they did not appear.14 On January 26, 2009, the Public Prosecutor announced that the charges were dismissed since they were result offences and the donors had not filed a complaint as the aggrieved party – therefore the offences were not constituted. However, the Public Prosecutor's decision left the way open for a future court case against these organisations, thus undermining their legal security.

Another action taken against human rights defenders during 2008 was the auditing of organisations exercising their legitimate right to freedom of association. On October 1, 2008, the Deputy Minister for Foreign Cooperation, Mr. Valdrack Jaentschke, announced publicly that a revision would be carried out on conventions agreed with international NGOs and the legal framework governing national and international NGOs. He also announced the creation of a mechanism of "joint audit" of all the funding received by NGOs. Most of the organisations he mentioned had criticised President Ortega's administration, such as the Civil Coordinating Committee (Coordinadora Civil), which mobilised thousands of people in 2008 to protest against poverty and to defend democracy. In addition, in September 2008, the Government opened an investigation into the management of 4,500 NGOs that are registered in Nicaragua, of which 700 were being investigated under allegations that they were not fulfilling legal requirements. On the same day, Deputy Minister Jaentschke announced on Canal 4's "En Vivo" programme that he will not allow NGOs to "adulterate" or receive funds from abroad (in particular from international cooperation) for "political activities": according to Mr. Jaentschke, demonstrations, the hiring of buses and the price of blankets for demonstrators were "illegal", and did not fall under any of the organisations' "operational plans". He declared that no NGO had the right to "triangulate" funds for political purposes. During his speech, he made direct reference to various NGOs such as Oxfam Great Britain and the CINCO Centre. He also called for the Ministry of the Interior to be particularly vigilant in that respect and he showed his support for the inclusion of a specific clause into conventions agreed with NGO related to "non-intervention in political affairs" in Nicaragua.

Acts of violence against human rights defenders

The authorities' behaviour led to and exacerbated violence against human rights defenders. For instance, a demonstration organised at the initiative of various organisations15 on September 20, 2008 to protest against the Government's policies had to be suspended due to acts of violence from FSLN supporters and members of the CPC. Likewise, in the afternoon of October 16, 2008, members of the CPC physically and verbally assaulted CENIDH members while accompanying members of the Civil Coordinating Committee who were going to appear before the Public Ministry for alleged illegal activities. The CENIDH also indicated that they had received several threatening emails from anonymous addresses. These attacks particularly targeted Ms. Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia, CENIDH President and FIDH Vice-President. In the early morning of September 26, 2008, individuals driving a car stopped outside Ms. Nuñez' residence in León and threw 16 paint-filled lightbulbs at the front of the house, covering it with black and red paint, evoking the death threats used during the Somocista dictatorship. As a consequence, on November 11, 2008, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures for Ms. Nuñez and CENIDH members. However, the Government did not manage to reach an agreement with the beneficiaries as to the form these measures would take, which therefore were limited to the presence of one to three members of the national police at the CENIDH headquarters.

Human rights defenders were also subjected to acts of intimidation in the framework of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. On December 10, 2008, the CENIDH organised a peaceful march to commemorate the adoption of these two texts, in which took part human rights activists from the "Padre César Jerez" Network (Red Padre César Jerez) who had come from different parts of the country, members of the Civil Coordinating Committee, the Permanent Human Rights Commission (Comisión Permanente de Derechos Humanos – CPDH), the Network of Women Against Violence (Red de Mujeres contra la Violencia), the Nicaraguan Coordinating Committee of the Federation of NGOs that work with Children and Teenagers (Federación Coodinadora Nicaragüense de Organismos No Gubernamentales que trabaja con la Niñez y la Adolescencia – CODENI), MAM and other organisations. The Government did everything in its power to prevent the demonstration by sending its supporters, headed by the Human Rights Prosecutor, Mr. Omar Cabezas, joined by other officers from the same institution, as well as members of the Workers' National Front (Frente Nacional de los Trabajadores – FTN) and the CPC, to verbally and physically assault the participants to the peaceful commemoration of such important dates. Prosecutor Omar Cabezas took the opportunity to reiterate his criticisms of the CENIDH, claiming that "it was an organisation financed by the United States embassy in order to destabilise the current Government".16

Constant repression of women's rights defenders

2008 was characterised by continuous and systematic acts of harassment against the leaders of social and women's organisations that reported cases of violence against women and sexual abuse. Women's rights defenders were victims of repression on two grounds, firstly for working for NGOs that criticised the Government policy, and secondly for defending, inter alia, the importance of therapeutic abortion.17 Indeed, although therapeutic abortion had been authorised for 169 years, it was unconstitutionally penalised by the National Assembly, through Law 603 it voted in 2006. This penalisation is also reflected in Article 143 of the Criminal Code. In 2007, more than 67 appeals were lodged for unconstitutionality before the Supreme Court of Justice by various organisations of the civil society. Despite protests at national and international levels, the Court did not pronounce itself. This only confirms the lack of commitment from the ruling party, which controls the Supreme Court of Justice, regarding a decision that is of so much importance, in particular for poor women, as they are the ones who have to resort to clandestine abortions when either their life or health is in danger.

Amongst the arguments put forward to discredit the activities of NGOs that defend women's rights, the weekly Semanario El 19, regarded as the Government mouthpiece, accused in its edition published in the week of September 18, 2008 the MAM and CINCO of making a profit out of the debate on therapeutic abortion. Likewise, on October 1, 2008, following a press conference organised by CENIDH, two Canal 4 journalists publicly accused Ms. Nuñez of defending "oligarchs" and asked her three times about her position regarding abortion, when this had nothing to do with the subject that was being discussed.

In addition, the judiciary was used against women defenders: in 2008, the criminal proceedings initiated in October 2007 against Ms. Ana María Pizarro, Ms. Juana Antonia Jiménez, Ms. Lorna Norori Gutiérrez, Ms. Martha María Blandón, Ms. Luisa Molina Argüello, Ms. Martha Munguía Alvarado, Ms. Mayra Sirias, Ms. Yamileth Mejía Palma and Ms. Violeta Delgado Sarmiento, nine leaders of women's rights organisations,18 remained pending for various crimes, including "rape concealment", "illegal association with intent to commit an offence" and "apology of crime". This came as a result of their support in favour of "Rosita", a girl who was raped by her step-father, and whom they helped to abort in order to save her life, at a time when therapeutic abortion was still legally permitted.19 Eighteen months after the accusation was made, the Public Ministry has still not come to a decision, therefore undermining the women's rights organisations legal security and by doing so trying to intimidate women's rights defenders.

Urgent Interventions issued by The Observatory in 200820

Names of human rights defenders / NGOsViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Mr. Ernesto CardenalJudicial harassmentPress ReleaseSeptember 9, 2008
Ms. Vilma Nuñez de EscorciaThreats / HarassmentUrgent Appeal NIC 001/1008/OBS 160October 1, 2008
Feminist and human rights organisationsHarassment and threatsOpen Letter to the authoritiesOctober 16, 2008

1 Mr. Carlos Wilfredo Navarro declared that the registration of the candidates for the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (Alianza Liberal Nicaraguense – ALN), the MRS, the Nicaraguan Resistance Party (Partido Resistencia Nicaragüense – PRN) and the PC was invalid since they had not fulfilled the Electoral Law requirements. As a consequence, he asked for the cancellation of the parties' legal personality, which was duly carried out by the Supreme Electoral Council for the MRS and the PC, but on different legal grounds.

2 See Declaration of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on the Municipal Elections in Nicaragua, November 12, 2008.

3 See Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos – CENIDH), Derechos Humanos en Nicaragua, Informe 2008, Febuary 2009.

4 See CENIDH. In this matter, the European Parliament "regret[ed] deeply the way in which the local elections of November 9, 2008 were conducted, and believe[d] that the results lack all democratic legitimacy", "the fact that the climate of suspected fraud in some municipalities has provoked demonstrations and clashes between supporters of different parties, leaving a number of people injured and aggravating an already profound political crisis" and "that two political parties were unable to take part in the local elections, and expresses its concern regarding the progress of democratic consolidation and governance in Nicaragua, especially with respect to the processes of inclusion and active participation". See Resolution P6_TA-PROV(2008)0641 of the European Parliament, December 18, 2008.

5 See CENIDH, Derechos Humanos en Nicaragua, Informe 2008, Febuary 2009.

6 The CPC are a presidential initiative resulting from Decree 003-97. This type of organisation is nothing other than the new form of the FSLN's partisan organisation, faking citizen's participation but with a strong influence within public institutions. It is an influential organisation due to its privileged access to Government resources, and its role as a vehicle to benefit from Government programmes. This proves the establishment of a Party-State, to the detriment of the country's institutionalism. The CPC have also been used to weaken citizen participation forums, which were previously crucial in influencing Government plans and actions, and they attempt to act as a link between the Government and the citizens. The President's wife, Mrs. Rosario Murillo, is responsible for the CPC at national, regional and local levels.

7 See CENIDH, Derechos Humanos en Nicaragua, Informe 2008, Febuary 2009.

8 See Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee, United Nations Document CCPR/C/NIC/CO/3, December 12, 2008.

9 See European Parliament Resolution P6_TA-PROV (2008)0641, December 18, 2008.

10 See CENIDH, Derechos Humanos en Nicaragua, Informe 2008, Febuary 2009.

11 CINCO is an institution that specialises in the communication, culture, democracy and public opinion studies. In 2007, it issued a report about an alleged corruption scandal that involved the Supreme Court of Justice and the Secretariat General of the FSLN, from which President Ortega works.

12 "Triangulation of funds" entails the "illegal" use of cooperation funds received from foreign Governments and organisations, which are sent to other civil society organisations in the country. In fact, organisations with administrative capacities tend to support organisations that lack a legal personality, so that they can carry out their human rights activities. This is not illegal since the right of association is recognised by Article 49 of the Constitution.

13 Ms. Montenegro supported Ms. Zoilamérica Narváez, who accused her step-father Daniel Ortega of rape ten years ago.

14 On October 22, 2008, the EU Presidency expressed its "concern for the acts of harassment to which several NGOs and, through them, several personalities of the civil society were subjected" and wondered "about the real aims of these intimidation manoeuvres targeting NGOs and those members of the civil society". See French EU Presidency Press Release, October 22, 2008 (Unofficial translation).

15 The organisations that organised the demonstration included the Western Democratic Coalition (Coalición Democrática de Occidente), the Citizen's Coalition for Democracy (Unión Ciudadana por la Democracia) and the Civil Coordinating Committee, a body that gathers hundred of NGOs and social networks.

16 See CENIDH, Derechos Humanos en Nicaragua, Informe 2008, Febuary 2009.

17 Therapeutic abortion is generally used for women who have been the victims of rape, incest or whose pregnancy puts their life at risk.

18 These nine leaders belong to different networks such as the Network of Women Against Violence, the Feminist Movement (Movimiento Feminista), MAM, the Nicaraguan Coordinating Committee of the Federation of NGOs that work with Children and Teenagers, and the September 28 Campaign (Campaña 28 de Septiembre).

19 During its 94th session, the UN Human Rights Committee "note[d] with concern the criminal investigations mounted against defenders of reproductive rights, including the criminal charges pending against the nine women defenders of women's rights involved in the interruption of an abortion conducted on an under-age girl who had been raped, which occurred at a time when therapeutic abortion was still legally permitted", and "recommend[ed] that the State party take the necessary action to put a stop to alleged instances of systematic persecution and death threats, particularly against the defenders of women's rights mentioned above, and ensure that those responsible are duly punished". See Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee, United Nations Document CCPR/C/NIC/CO/3, December 12, 2008.

20 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.

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