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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Nicaragua

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1997
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Nicaragua, 30 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa2d1c.html [accessed 21 October 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.
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997

 

Nicaragua is a constitutional democracy, with a directly elected President, Vice President, and a unicameral National Assembly. President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected in a free and fair election in 1990, defeating the incumbent Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) candidate, Daniel Ortega. In October Arnoldo Aleman defeated Ortega in free and fair presidential elections and took office January 10, 1997. The executive branch coexists with the activist National Assembly. The Supreme Electoral Council is an independent fourth branch of government. The judiciary is independent but weak.

The President is the supreme chief of national defense and security forces. President Chamorro served as nominal Minister of Defense; there was no Defense Ministry. President-elect Aleman named a civilian to be Defense Minister to head a civilian-led Defense Ministry in his Government. The Ministry of Government oversees the National Police, which are formally charged with internal security. However, they share this responsibility with the army in rural areas. The National Assembly's approval in August of a new Organic Police Law helped to strengthen civilian control of the National Police and established a new office of professional responsibility. Reflecting enhanced civilian control, the security forces' conduct improved, although some members continued to commit human rights abuses.

Nicaragua is an extremely poor country. The economy is predominantly agricultural, dependent on sugar, beef, coffee, and seafood exports, with some light manufacturing. The economy grew an estimated 5 percent in 1996 – the third year of growth after a decade of contraction. Despite significant foreign debt relief negotiated during the year, the country continued to have a precarious balance of payments position and remained heavily dependent on foreign assistance. Although investment increased, the slow and complicated resolution of confiscated property claims continued to hinder private investment. The unemployment rate was officially estimated at 17 percent, while total unemployment and underemployment may have reached 50 percent. The inflation rate was about 11 percent. Estimated per capita annual income was $470.

The Government's human rights record improved measurably, but serious problems remain. Police use of excessive force resulted in instances of extrajudicial killing, but these diminished from previous years. Police beat and otherwise abused detainees, often to obtain confessions. Torture, once a major problem, was rare. Prison conditions are poor. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained citizens. The judiciary is weak, and large case backlogs, long delays in trials, and lengthy pretrial detention are problems. A weak and antiquated judiciary continued to hamper prosecution of human rights abusers. The authorities at times infringed upon citizens' privacy rights. Discrimination against women and indigenous people is a problem. Violence against women, including rape and domestic abuse, remained a serious problem, but public officials took little effective action to counter it. Murder and kidnaping by criminal bands in northern rural areas were common.

The Organization of American States' International Support and Verification Commission (OAS/CIAV) reported 26 deaths of members of the former Nicaraguan Resistance (RN) occurring during the year, none of which it attributed to the security forces, unlike previous years. However, the conviction rate among killers, particularly but not exclusively of ex-RN, was so low that a state of impunity could still be said to exist. The Tripartite Commission, composed of the Government, the Catholic Church, and the OAS/CIAV, formally ended its work on October 18 after finishing its 4-year-long review of slayings earlier in the decade of ex-RN members and other demobilized combatants and impunity enjoyed by their killers. The Commission sent 83 cases involving 164 murders, as well as 181 specific recommendations, to the Government for followup, but little action had been taken by year's end. Only 1 of 211 persons it cited as being involved in the slayings that occurred since 1990 was in jail during the year. In June the Supreme Court finished its review of judicial proceedings undertaken in 26 Tripartite Commission cases in which army and police officials stood accused, but in which the military court system had either issued acquittals or failed to prosecute. The Court found deficiencies in procedure in one-third of the cases and sent them back to the Government for prosecution or other appropriate action.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings by government officials.

Then-National Police Commander Fernando Caldera stated publicly that policeman Roberto Sanchez used excessive force when he shot university student Donaldo Romero in the back on June 21 in Managua. Romero, suspected of car theft, was killed shortly after his companion attacked Sanchez and other police officers. Sanchez was immediately dismissed from the police force, and a Managua district court judge sentenced him to prison in July.

In September policeman Juan Isidro Flores shot and killed peasant Mario Amador Duarte in Nueva Guinea department while the latter was in detention on suspicion of having stolen vegetables. Flores claimed that he was attempting to disarm Duarte when he accidentally discharged the round that killed the suspect. Flores was detained by police.

Bandit leader Sergio Palacios ("El Charro") and his associate Ricardo Guzman ("Garza") were killed near Waslala on June 2. The Catholic Church, citing reports from area residents, asserted that a booby-trapped radio killed Palacios and Guzman when it exploded. The army claimed that its soldiers happened upon Palacios and Guzman by chance and killed them in an ensuing gunbattle. The Church, which had served as mediator in disarmament talks between Palacios and the army, publicly criticized the killing but did not directly accuse the army.

The civil war formally concluded in June 1990 with the demobilization of the Nicaraguan Resistance; however, society continued to be politically polarized and heavily armed. In particular, the rule of law and basic infrastructure and conditions to guarantee personal security and economic opportunity did not extend to rural areas. Reflecting these sources of instability, the level of violence, primarily criminal in nature, has remained high in the traditionally conflictive, poverty-stricken northern and north-central zones. According to the OAS/CIAV, a total of 26 demobilized ex-RN members were murdered during the period January-June (not including armed bandits who were ex-RN); bringing to 396 the number of demobilized RN members who died under violent circumstances since the beginning of the Chamorro administration. Of the 26 killed during 1996, according to OAS/CIAV, the security forces killed none, and rearmed resistance members (recontras) are known to have killed 10.

Armed bandit groups, some of which claimed political agendas, blocked highways, burned vehicles, and engaged in robbery, kidnaping for ransom, and murder in the lawless countryside of the northern and north-central zones. From January to June, 63 clashes between bandits and security forces resulted in 93 police and army casualties and an unknown number of bandit casualties. During the same period, the army and police arrested 218 bandits. The OAS/CIAV received an average of two reports per day of peasants fleeing their homes for fear of violence, and an average of 1.5 reports per day of homicide in these areas, a rate that has varied little during the past 6 years.

In response to coffee producers' concerns, the Government deployed soldiers and police to guard coffee transport routes and to protect farmers from extortion or kidnaping during the 1994-95 and 1995-96 harvest seasons. Local human rights groups reported very few cases of human rights abuses by the security forces deployed in the operation. The deployment effectively reduced the level of criminal violence in the affected areas. Army and police conducted another similar operation as an extension of troop reinforcements to ensure security of voters and election officials during the 1996 election campaign.

To address the issue of unresolved ex-RN deaths, President Chamorro established the Tripartite Commission in September 1992. The Commission concluded its review in October and turned 83 human rights cases involving 164 allegedly murdered excombatants, as well as 181 specific recommendations, over to the Government for followup, but the Government had taken no further action by year's end. The Commission issued three internal reports during 1993, covering investigations of 88 deaths and including 120 recommendations for followup action by the Government and security forces, ranging from arrest of known perpetrators to investigations of obstruction of justice. In September 1995, the Commission submitted to President Chamorro a fourth report covering an additional 33 cases plus an evaluation of the compliance level of all recommendations contained in the 3 earlier reports. The Commission verified that only 14 of the 120 recommendations contained in the first 3 reports had been fully implemented, while 40 had been partially implemented. Of 73 members of the police named in the 3 reports, the courts tried 36 on criminal charges and convicted 5. Of 38 military officials named, the courts tried 20 and convicted 2. According to the OAS/CIAV, none of those convicted served a complete sentence.

In June the Supreme Court finished a year-long review of judicial procedures employed in 26 Tripartite Commission cases undertaken at the direction of President Chamorro. Army commander Joaquin Cuadra and Minister of Government Sergio Narvaez, whose ministry controls the National Police, had requested the review in 1995. The Court's review focused on military court procedures followed in the prosecutions of army and police officials who were found not guilty, or cases of those named in the reports but never prosecuted. The Court found deficiencies in procedure in 4 cases, said that another 4 cases should be reopened should new evidence come to light, and found no fault with the other 18. Army and police officials arrested no one on related charges, but police officials ordered that searches be undertaken for officers cited by the court.

In June a jury found army major Ivan Gutierrez innocent of the September 1995 slaying of Carlos Jose Salinas. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) suspected Gutierrez paid Salinas' mother to persuade the jury to exonerate him.

On December 13, 1995 a demonstration by university students and others outside the National Assembly resulted in a confrontation with police that left 2 protesters dead, 66 wounded (10 by gunfire according to police officials), and 8 police officers wounded. The police were not adequately prepared to control the violence. A new riot control unit has since been formed and equipped. A trial of police officers suspected of firing on the crowd was underway at year's end.

In August the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) participated in an exhumation of a mass grave found at Masaya national park. It said that this was one of 70 covert graves of persons allegedly murdered by Sandinista revolutionaries in 1978-79 found since the end of the civil war. The ANPDH reported that a total of 84 corpses had been exhumed from 8 covert graves, but said that it knew of more than 217 others that had not been exhumed. No government investigations were undertaken.

In November 1991, a special presidential commission charged with investigating the February 1991 killing of former RN commander Enrique Bermudez was dissolved after it claimed that there was a lack of evidence. A 1993 Scotland Yard investigation established no new leads with which to open the case, and no progress was made during the year.

In September the Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard testimony on a charge of obstruction of justice regarding the investigation of the 1990 killing of 16-year-old Jean Paul Genie. (Genie was slain following an incident involving members of the motorcade of then-army commander General Humberto Ortega.) The Court rejected the Government's argument that the Court lacked authority in the case because Nicaragua had not, at the time of the killing, accepted the Court's jurisdiction. The Government had previously said that all officials would testify if called, but neither army commander General Joaquin Cuadra nor General Ortega appeared when the Court called them in September. The Government's legal representative in the case separately told the Court that the Government opposed Cuadra's and Ortega's appearance because the Court had sufficient evidence to proceed to a judgment; a military tribunal headed by General Cuadra had already found General Ortega innocent in June 1994 (and he should not be subjected to double jeopardy); and, the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on the Genie family's appeal requesting that the it assert civilian jurisdiction in the case. At year's end, the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on the Genie family's petition.

On July 14, 1995, the Attorney General's office petitioned the Supreme Court to order the immediate arrest of former army Major Frank Ibarra. Ibarra was sentenced in absentia in 1993 to 20 years' imprisonment for the November 1992 murder of Dr. Arges Sequeira Mangas, president of the Association of Nicaraguan Confiscated Property Owners. Ibarra has remained a fugitive from justice since Sequeira's death.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

The Government failed to respond to a request from the United Nations Working Group on Disappeared Persons for more information on the 1994 disappearance of Sandinista activist Mario Benjamin Mendez.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although use of torture is a punishable crime under the law, there were isolated instances of torture by the authorities. There were also credible reports that police beat and otherwise physically mistreated detainees, often to obtain confessions. Human rights groups attributed these abuses in part to the prevailing state of impunity. Another important contributing factor in such abuses by the police is the lack of professional training in sophisticated investigative techniques that would enable the police to avoid resorting to brutal methods. Inadequate budget support for professional training, salaries and benefits, and proper equipment and supplies also hampered efforts to improve police performance.

On May 22, a Boaco district court judge sentenced police officers Orlando Brizuela and Carlos Suazo to 1 year in prison each for abuse of authority, sexual assault, wounding, and wrongfully detaining a prisoner after the two beat and tortured Juan Pablo Reyes. They burned Reyes and threatened him with death after being arrested for committing a minor offense on May 2. The ANPDH reported that the police beat 15-year-olds Marco Antonio Gonzalez and Abelardo Rodriguez while in custody, the latter in Boaco department by police officer Venancio Obando. The police took no action to investigate these incidents. The ANPDH reported that prison guards subjected 15-year-old Juan Carlos Garcia to electrical shocks while in detention on Corn Island.

The Office of Civil Inspection for Professional Responsibility of the Ministry of Government is responsible for monitoring allegations of illegal detention and police abuse. Through September the office received 192 formal complaints involving 241 police officers. The office concluded that, of the 98 complaints that it had investigated through September, 25 were human rights cases. Of 45 policemen determined to be responsible for human rights violations, the authorities had administratively sanctioned 29 through September. The unit's small budget and staff hampered effective investigations and publicity. The Ministry of Government frequently does not follow up on the office's recommendations. Civil inspection officials said that police commanders often hindered their investigations by refusing to share pertinent information. The Ministry of Government took no action to improve police cooperation with the civil inspection unit.

Prison conditions are poor. The prison system remained overcrowded and underfunded, with medical attention virtually nonexistent and malnutrition a constant problem. According to government statistics, prisons had a total inmate population of 3,752 as of August, an average of 82 percent over capacity. The prisons of Esteli, Chinandega, and Bluefields housed more than double their intended capacity. The prison budget remained constant, although the inmate population increased by 14 percent during the year. Prison officials calculated that the daily expenditure on prisoners fell from $3.67 per prisoner in 1992 to $2.79 in 1996. Prison officials reported that the annual budget for food remained constant in spite of the growing prison population and that average daily caloric intake therefore fell to 750 to 800 calories, well below the 1,800 calories per day recommended by the United Nations. However, many prisoners received additional food from visiting family and friends. Medical care available to prisoners fell far short of the basic needs of all prisoners, while 200 chronically ill prisoners were in particularly bad condition. Lack of available medical care led prisons to release ill prisoners convicted of lesser offenses. Three prisoners charged with serious offenses died in prison in 1995 of malnutrition and lack of medical care.

As of August, 11.6 percent of the prison population was between the ages of 15 and 18. Youths were housed in the same prisons as adults for lack of juvenile detention centers, though in different wings of the prisons. While only Managua has a separate prison for women, there have been no reports of problems ensuing from mixed facilities. Women were also housed in separate wings in facilities outside the Managua area and were guarded by female custodians. Police station holding cells were overcrowded by an average of 30 percent. Officials claimed that suspects were often left in these cells during their trials, as budgetary shortfalls often restricted the use of fuel for frequent transfers from prison to distant courtrooms. As a result of overcrowding in both the cells and in prisons, police and penitentiary officials issued urgent calls for increased budgets to build more facilities and increase food purchases. Government officials responded that the budget could not be stretched to meet these demands.

Prison guards received human rights training from nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) and the Catholic Church, and generally treated prisoners well. However, there were instances of abuse, some of which involved minors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Arbitrary arrest and detention by the police were common. The Police Functions Law requires police to obtain a warrant prior to detaining a suspect and to notify family members within 24 hours of the detainee's whereabouts. However, the police rarely complied with this law. Detainees do not have the right to an attorney until they have been formally charged with a crime. Local human rights groups criticized the law for providing inadequate judicial oversight of police arrests.

The constitutional reforms instituted in July 1995 reduced from 72 to 48 hours the time police may legally hold a suspect before they must bring him before a judge to decide if charges should be brought. The judge must then either order the accused released or transferred to prison. Due to lack of prison space, there were over 1,000 prisoners in badly overcrowded police holding cells, most of whom were being held illegally beyond the 48-hour deadline. The CENIDH denounced one particularly egregious case, that of 13-year-old Dolores Juarez Salmeron, who was arbitrarily detained by police for 16 days. The new Organic Police Law passed in August allows the National Police to hold its own members suspected of wrongdoing up to 20 days while conducting initial investigations, which contravenes the constitutionally mandated 48-hour maximum period.

The ANPDH recorded 77 complaints of illegal or arbitrary detention by the National Police and army from January through June. The number represents a significant decline from previous years. As in past years, incidents of arbitrary detention were most common in the rural northern and north-central regions, where much of the civil war was fought.

Exile is not practiced. There were no reports of political violence against any citizens returning from civil war era self-imposed exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judiciary is independent but weak. Human rights and lawyers' groups complained about the delay of justice caused by judicial inaction, sometimes for years.

The judicial system comprises both civil and military courts. The 12-member Supreme Court of Justice is the system's highest court and is also responsible for nominating all appellate and lower court judges. The Court is divided into specialized chambers on administrative, criminal, constitutional, and civil matters.

The 1994 Military Code requires the civilian court system to try members of the military charged with common crimes. From January to August the Attorney General for Penal Affairs' office received 136 complaints from civilians against members of the military. It referred 72 of these to civilian courts for trial. At the end of August, courts had sentenced members of the military to prison in 10 of the cases and found those involved in 6 cases innocent. The other 56 cases were in stages of judicial processing, which the Attorney General for Penal Affairs called "evidence of the worsening problem of backlog in the judicial system."

In criminal cases, the accused has the right to legal counsel, and defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The presiding judge appoints attorneys from a standard list to represent indigent defendants, but, because they are not paid by the State, many attorneys pay a $1.50 fine rather than represent such clients. According to the ANPDH, approximately 90 percent of indigent defendants go to trial without an attorney to represent them. This contributes greatly to the slow pace of justice, and many prisoners spend more than a year in jail without a trial. The Permanent Commission for Human Rights (CPDH) has estimated that nearly half of all those incarcerated in the prison system have been awaiting trial for between 6 months and 2 years.

The Supreme Court removed Yali judge Federico Schneegan from office in August after he had been widely criticized by human rights organizations for accepting bribes and sexually abusing female prisoners. The CENIDH claims that Schneegan, in reaction to public denunciations made by the CENIDH's Yali representative, offered to pay bandit leader "El Ruco" 3,500 cordobas to kill the representative. "El Ruco" reported Schneegan's offer to police who then detained him. He was dead 2 hours after his detention; police contended he committed suicide. Schneegan was not charged with any crime.

There were no known political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution provides that all persons have the right to privacy of their family and to the inviolability of their home, correspondence, and communications. It also requires warrants for searches of private homes and excludes from legal proceedings illegally seized letters, documents, and private papers. The Government, however, did not always respect these rights in practice.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and a free press, and the Government respects these rights in practice. The privately owned print media, the broadcast media, and academic circles freely and openly discussed diverse viewpoints in public discourse without government interference.

The news medium with the largest audience is radio, but polls show that television is the primary source of news, particularly in the cities. Listeners receive a wide variety of political viewpoints, especially on Managua's 45 radio stations. There are five television stations, three of which carry news programming with partisan political content. There is no official state censorship, nor is self-censorship practiced.

Freedom of the press is potentially qualified, however, by several constitutional provisions. The Constitution stipulates that citizens have the right to "accurate information," thereby providing an exception by which the freedom to publish information that the Government deems inaccurate could be abridged. Although the right to information cannot be subject to censorship, there is retroactive liability established by law, defined as a "social responsibility," implying the potential for sanctions against irresponsibility by the press. The legislature did not modify these provisions in the constitutional reforms, but neither did the Government invoke these provisions to suppress the media.

The passage of a law in September that established a professional journalists' guild was perceived by some as a blow to freedom of expression. The law requires Nicaraguan journalists in the Managua area to have a bachelors degree in journalism or 5 years of journalistic experience in order to be accredited by a college of journalists and also requires media owners in the capital area to ensure that they employ only accredited journalists. The law was proposed by a journalists' association seeking to establish professional standards, but opposition forces claim that the law restricts the freedom of others to publish or state their views in the media. To mollify the opposition, the National Assembly amended the law to restrict its application to the national capital, where most of the media outlets are nonetheless located.

The Government does not restrict academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution recognizes the right to peaceful assembly without prior permission. It also recognizes the right to public assembly, demonstration, and mobilization "in conformity with the law." The Government generally respects the right of assembly, although the law requires demonstrators to obtain permission for a rally or march by registering its planned size and location with the police. The authorities routinely granted such permission, but many groups chose not to register because, they claimed, the process was too cumbersome. In most cases, the Government took no action against illegal demonstrations.

The Constitution provides for the right to organize or affiliate with political parties, and opposition and independent associations functioned freely without government interference or restriction. Private associations do not have legal status to conduct private fund raising or receive public financial support until they receive this authorization from the National Assembly, which it routinely confers.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

Sporadic bombings of Catholic churches continued through August. Most of the attacks occurred in Masaya, Managua, and Leon, involved some small explosive devices, and caused minor damage to structures but no casualties. Church officials characterized the attacks as efforts by extremists to intimidate the Church and halt its civic education campaigns. In November a criminal court in Leon convicted 12 men for a number of the bombings and sentenced them to between 3 and 15 years in prison. Following the convictions, FSLN assembly deputies unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation pardoning the 12 persons. Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and other church officials reported receiving anonymous telephone threats.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for the right to travel and reside anywhere in the country and to enter and exit the country freely. The law requires citizens and residents to obtain an exit visa to leave the country, but immigration authorities routinely granted these for a small fee. However, the law also allows a judge to order immigration officials to deny exit visas to those involved in court cases if there is reasonable suspicion that the accused may abscond. The right of citizens to return to Nicaragua is not established in the Constitution, but, in practice, the Government has not restricted anyone's return.

The Government cooperates with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The Constitution provides for asylum, and political refugees cannot be expelled to the country persecuting them. The issue of the provision of first asylum did not arise; there were no reports of the forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens exercised their right peacefully to change their government in free and fair national elections in October, held under the auspices of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), an independent branch of government. Voters elected the Liberal Alliance's Arnoldo Aleman President from a field of 24 candidates with 51 percent of the vote, against 38 percent for FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega. Over 3,000 national and international observers declared the elections free and fair, despite some logistical and organizational problems. Observers from individual political parties monitored nearly all polling stations. The FSLN and some other losing parties claimed systematic irregularities in the process amounted to fraud, but the CSE's exhaustive, and closely monitored, vote tally verification process confirmed the final tallies. Nonetheless, at year's end the FSLN called the electoral process "legal but not legitimate."

The 1995 reforms to the 1987 Constitution established a more even distribution of power and authority among the four coequal branches of government. The executive branch is headed by the President and a cabinet appointed by the President, who is both head of state and head of government, as well as supreme chief of the defense and security forces. The Vice President has no constitutionally mandated duties or powers. Both the President and Vice President are elected to 5-year terms by direct popular vote, with the possibility of a runoff between the top two candidates if one does not obtain at least 45 percent of the vote on the first ballot. The Constitution does not permit reelection. Early in 1996, the Supreme Court dismissed challenges against the constitutionality of the prohibitions contained in the 1995 reforms against close relatives of an incumbent president, by blood or marriage, from running for election as president. Based on this and on constitutional prohibitions against candidates who had at any time given up their citizenship or were subject to legal prosecution, the CSE in July unanimously voted to disqualify 3 of the candidates running for the presidency.

A single-chamber National Assembly exercises legislative power. In October voters chose 93 members, including 20 deputies from nationwide lists, 70 from lists presented in each of the 15 departments and 2 autonomous regions, and 3 defeated presidential candidates who obtained a minimum percentage of the national vote. Members elected concurrently with the President and Vice President in 1996 are to serve 5-year terms.

There are no restrictions in law or practice against women, indigenous groups, or other minorities voting or participating in politics. Women served as President and Vice President, as well as president of the Supreme Electoral Council. Additionally, 3 of 12 Supreme Court justices are women; women hold ministerial, vice ministerial, and other senior positions in government; and voters elected 9 women to the National Assembly in October. Two members of the National Assembly were Miskito Indians; indigenous people are represented in government at both the local and national levels.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Human rights groups operated without government interference, with rare exceptions. Major organizations included the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, the Permanent Commission for Human Eights, the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, the Episcopal Center for Development, and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo's verification commission. The OAS's International Support and Verification Commission, which was established in 1990 to oversee the repatriation, disarmament, resettlement, and protection of the human rights of the members of the Nicaraguan Resistance, was scheduled to complete its mission in December, but its mandate was extended an additional 6 months. In June 1993, the OAS General Assembly expanded the mandate of the OAS/CIAV to monitor the human rights of, and provide assistance to, all those affected by the civil war, rather than just ex-RN, which had been its original task. OAS/CIAV and the Catholic Church helped create 45 "peace commissions" in the northern and central parts of the country, intended to give inhabitants of the area a means of dispute resolution, a means of monitoring human rights abuses, and a vehicle for expressing their concerns to government authorities.

The CENIDH complained that then-National Police Commander Fernando Caldera obstructed its investigations into alleged human rights abuses by police officers and severed all contact with the CENIDH for a short period during the year. The Ministry of Government's civil inspection office also made similar complaints regarding lack of police cooperativeness (see Section l.c.).

The ANPDH, the CENIDH, and the CPDH conducted numerous human rights workshops both at the police training academy and at various police headquarters throughout the country. The Catholic Church conducted human rights training for army units that were deployed to the northern and north-central regions in May to provide security to citizens and electoral workers during the June-July voter registration. The military distributed human rights manuals to its personnel. Some military officers received internationally sponsored human rights training.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of birth, nationality, political belief, race, gender, language, religion, opinion, national origin, economic condition, or social condition. In practice, however, the Government made little or no effort to combat discrimination. Few, if any, discrimination suits or formal complaints were filed with government officials.

Women

The most prevalent violations of women's rights involved domestic and sexual violence, which were widespread and vastly underreported. The 528 reports of rape received by the National Police in 1993, the most recent year for which police statistics are available, represented only a fraction of the rapes that occurred. According to human rights activists, women are often reluctant to report abuse or file charges, in part due to social stigmas attached to victims of rape. Local human rights groups reported that while police sometimes intervened to prevent injury in cases of domestic violence, they rarely charged perpetrators. Those cases that actually reached the courts usually resulted in a not guilty verdict due to judicial inexperience with, and lack of legal training related to, proper judicial handling of such violence.

The police manage six "women's commissariats" – two in Managua, one in Esteli, one in Bluefields, one in Leon, and one in Masaya – supported in part by foreign assistance. The centers are annexes of local police stations and staffed by female police officers. They provide both social and legal help to women and mediate spousal conflicts. Through May 1995, the centers recorded 1,816 cases of violence against females, which included 705 cases of rape of girls from 4 to 15 years old. The National Assembly passed in August a new Law Against Aggression Against Women, designed to serve as the basis for prosecution of crimes against women.

Although the Constitution provides for equality between the sexes, some authorities and society in general often did not respect this in practice. While discrimination against women is technically illegal, reports of such discrimination were persistent throughout the year. Women are underrepresented in management positions in the private sector, and they constitute the majority of workers in the traditionally low-paid education, textile, and health service sectors.

According to government statistics, women have equal or somewhat better access to education than men. Net enrollment for girls in the primary grades is 79 percent, compared with 76 percent for boys. At the secondary level, 33 percent of girls and 26 percent of boys are enrolled.

Children

Children 15 years of age and younger make up approximately 45 percent of the population. The Government expresses its commitment to children's human rights and welfare publicly but does not commit adequate funding levels for children's programs. Education is compulsory through the sixth grade, but this provision is not enforced. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), using 1993 statistics, estimated that 6,000 children have been abandoned by their families, some 2,000 live in orphanages, and approximately 1,800 are in foster homes. Every year the media carry stories of parents who abandoned or killed their children because they were too poor or otherwise unable to take care of them. UNICEF reported that 11.3 percent of all children from 6 to 14 years of age were employed or looking for work in the informal or agricultural sectors. Many children work during annual harvest, and approximately 30,000 children work in the streets of Managua as vendors or beggars. Child prostitution exists but is not common.

People with Disabilities

The Government has not legislated or otherwise mandated accessibility for the disabled. However, through international NGO's, foreign governments, and the public health care system, the Government procured thousands of prostheses and other medical equipment for veterans and former resistance members. Through its clinics and hospitals, the Government provides care to war veterans and other disabled persons, but the quality of care is generally poor.

Indigenous People

Comprising about 6 percent of the country's population, the indigenous people live primarily in the Northern Autonomous Atlantic Region (RAAN) and Southern Autonomous Atlantic Region (RAAS), created in 1987 out of the former department of Zelaya, which border the Caribbean sea and comprise 47 percent of the national territory. According to the Government's May 1995 census (which undercounted the population by as much as 25 percent in some rural areas), the four major identifiable tribes are the Miskito (with approximately 140,000 members), the Sumo (15,000), the Garifuna (1,500), and the Rama (1,000).

The indigenous people of the RAAN (principally the Miskito and the Sumo) have their own political party, the Yatama, with representation in regional and municipal councils. In an effort to encourage indigenous participation in the October elections, the CSE distributed electoral and civic education materials in four languages, including Miskito and Sumo. The 1987 Autonomy Law requires the Government to consult the indigenous regarding the exploitation of their areas' resources. The central Government often made decisions without adequate departmental or community consultation. As in previous years, some indigenous groups complained that central government authorities excluded the indigenous people of the Atlantic coast from meaningful participation in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation of natural resources. Critics of government policy cited official statistics that unemployment approached 70 percent in the RAAS and was nearly 90 percent in the RAAN, far above national averages.

A 650-member tribe in the RAAN, the Awas Tigni, sued the Government, claiming that its decision to award a long-term lumber concession to a Korean firm on a portion of the land it claims as its own was a violation of the American Convention on Human Rights. The Government has worked with indigenous groups in the past to reach compromises, but in this case countered that the area the Awas Tigni claim, 392,500 acres, was excessive for a tribe of its size. At the root of the dispute was the Government's failure to demarcate the land. Other indigenous groups, squatters, ex-RN, and soldiers also have claims to the same area. At year's end, the courts had not yet ruled on the Awas Tignis' claim.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Most Nicaraguans are of mixed background, and ethnicity is not a barrier to political or economic success. However, various indigenous groups from both the RAAN and the RAAS sometimes linked the Government's failure to expend resources in support of the Atlantic coast population to the existence of ethnic, racial, and religious (principally members of the Moravian church) minorities that predominate in that region.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for the right of workers to organize voluntarily in unions, and this right was reaffirmed in the new Labor Code which entered into effect in November, replacing the antiquated 1944 code. Legally, all public and private sector workers, except those in the military and the police, may form and join unions of their own choosing, and they exercise this right extensively. New unions must register with the Ministry of Labor and be granted legal status before they may engage in collective bargaining. The new code legally recognizes cooperatives, into which many transportation workers are organized. Slightly less than half of the formal sector work force, including agricultural workers, is unionized, according to labor leaders. Union membership continued to fall during the year. The unions are independent of the Government, although some are affiliated with political parties.

The Constitution recognizes the right to strike. The Labor Code requires a majority vote of all the workers in an enterprise to call a strike. Workers may strike legally only after they have demonstrated that they have just cause to strike and have exhausted other methods of dispute resolution, including mediation by the Ministry of Labor and compulsory arbitration. The new Labor Code streamlines these procedures, often previously ignored because they were expensive and cumbersome. Union leaders reported being satisfied with the reformed mechanism for requesting legal authorization to strike. The Labor Code prohibits retribution against strikers and union leaders for legal strikes. However, this protection may be withdrawn in the case of an illegal strike. The new code provides protected status to union leaders, requiring that companies receive permission from the Labor Ministry after having shown just cause in order to fire union executive board members. Such protection is limited to nine individuals per union.

Unions freely form or join federations or confederations and affiliate with and participate in international bodies.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution provides for the right to bargain collectively, and this right was reaffirmed in the new Labor Code. The Government generally sought to foster resolution of pressing labor conflicts (usually in the public sector) through informal negotiations rather than through formal administrative or judicial processes. According to the reformed code, companies engaged in disputes with employees must negotiate with the employees' union if the employees have thus organized themselves.

Eighteen firms, employing some 10,000 workers, operate in the government-run export processing zone (EPZ), and a private EPZ contains another firm with 500 employees. Three additional zones were authorized but had not opened by year's end. While EPZ officials maintain that labor laws are more strictly enforced in the EPZ than elsewhere, Managua-based representatives of the American Institute for Free Labor Development and union representatives have long maintained that the Labor Ministry is doing a poor job of enforcing the Labor Code in the EPZ's. Of the 19 EPZ enterprises, only 2 are unionized. EPZ officials claimed that, due to memories of the corrupt and ineffective unions of the 1980's, workers in the other 17 EPZ enterprises simply have no interest in unionizing. They also claim that wages and working conditions in EPZ enterprises are better than the national average.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there is no evidence that it is practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Constitution prohibits child labor that can affect normal childhood development or interfere with the obligatory school year. The new Labor Code raised the age at which children may begin working with parental permission from 12 to 14 years. Parental permission to work is also required for 15- and 16-year-olds. The law limits the workday for such children to 6 hours and prohibits night work. However, because of the economic needs of many families and lack of effective government enforcement mechanisms, child labor rules are rarely enforced except in the small, modern sector of the economy. A UNICEF study, citing 1993 statistics, estimated that some 108,000 children under the age of 15 are involved in some sort of labor in the formal and informal sectors of the economy. The same report estimated that 72,000 children under the age of 15 help with planting and harvesting crops such as coffee, cotton, bananas, tobacco, and rice. Children the age of 10 or older often worked for less than $1.00 per day on the same banana plantations and coffee plantations as their parents. Many small children work in the streets of Managua hawking merchandise, cleaning automobile windows, or begging. Working children averaged a 47-hour workweek, according to UNICEF.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

A 1991 executive branch decree established minimum wage rates, but they have not been adjusted for inflation since then. As a result, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has fallen some 50 percent over the past 5 years. Minimum wages vary by sector. Examples of monthly rates are: Agriculture, $17.44 (150 cordobas); construction, $22.09 (190 cordobas; government, $27.21 (234 cordobas); manufacturing, $29.07 (250 cordobas); and banking, $34.88 (300 cordobas). The minimum wage falls far below government estimates of what an urban family must spend each month for a basic basket of goods ($140.70, or 1,210 cordobas). In reality, the vast majority of urban workers earn well above the minimum rates.

The new Labor Code maintains the constitutionally mandated 8-hour workday; the standard legal workweek is a maximum of 48 hours, with 1 day of rest weekly. The new code establishes that severance pay shall be from 1 to 5 months' duration, depending on the duration of employment and the circumstances of firing. It also establishes an obligation of an employer to provide housing to employees who are temporarily assigned to areas beyond commuting distance. The new Labor Code seeks to bring the country into compliance with international standards and norms of workplace hygiene and safety, but the Ministry of Labor's office of hygiene and occupational security lacks adequate staff and resources to enforce these provisions. The new code gives workers the right to remove themselves from dangerous workplace situations without jeopardy to continued employment.

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