Nicaragua has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo Zambrana. Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front party exercises total control over the executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. President Ortega was inaugurated to a third term in office in January 2017 following a deeply flawed electoral process. The 2016 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and the elimination of restrictions on re-election for executive branch officials and mayors. Observers noted serious flaws in municipal, regional, and national elections since 2008. Civil society groups, international electoral experts, business leaders, and religious leaders identified persistent flaws in the 2019 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections and noted the need for comprehensive electoral reform.
The Nicaraguan National Police maintains internal security. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Both report directly to the president, pursuant to changes in the police and army code in 2014. Parapolice, which are nonuniformed, masked, and armed groups with tactical training and organization, act in coordination with government security forces, under the direct control of the government, and report directly to the national police. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and parapolice security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, committed by the government or its agents; forced disappearances by parapolice forces; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by prison guards and parapolice; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detentions by police and parapolice; political prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; a serious lack of independence of the judiciary; and arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy. There were serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including threats of violence, censorship, and criminal libel; and substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, as well as severe restrictions on religious freedom, including attacks on the Roman Catholic Church and church officials. The government continued to block nine nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations from recovering their legal status and illegally withheld their assets, preventing them from operating; during the year the government stripped one more nongovernmental organization of its legal status. Government restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly precluded any meaningful choice in elections. Elections for municipal authorities as well as for president and vice president and National Assembly representatives have been considered marred by fraud and irregularities since 2008. There was widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; discrimination and violence against ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; threats and attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation.
Parapolice and individuals linked to the Ortega regime carried out a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and violence toward perceived enemies of the regime, such as former political prisoners, campesino activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, human rights defenders, and Catholic clergy. Human rights groups alleged that between October 2018 and August, parapolice killed at least 30 campesinos considered to be opponents of the ruling party.
The government did not take steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, including those responsible for at least 325 killings and hundreds of disappearances during the prodemocracy uprising of April 2018. President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Human rights organizations and independent media alleged some killings were politically motivated, an allegation difficult to confirm because the government refused to conduct official inquiries.
Reports of killings were common in the north-central regions and the North Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACN). Human rights groups and campesino advocates documented at least 30 killings of campesinos between October 2018 and August in and around the departments of Jinotega and Nueva Segovia. Human rights groups said these killings marked an escalation of a campaign of terror in the north-central and RACN regions, perpetrated by parapolice groups to stamp out political opposition to the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party. On July 19, Abner Pineda, a member of the FSLN party and staff member of the La Trinidad municipality, shot and killed Jorge Luis Rugama Rizo after Rugama yelled, “Long live a free Nicaragua” at a pro-FSLN caravan celebrating the anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution. Pineda turned himself in and claimed self-defense. His case did not start until three months after the incident, during which time he remained free instead of being in pretrial detention as the law prescribes. In November a judge convicted Pineda of manslaughter. Two weeks later Pineda was sentenced to the minimum one year in prison. A judge immediately commuted his sentence, and Pineda was released.
There was no indication the government investigated crimes committed by police and parapolice groups related to the 2018 prodemocracy uprising. In April 2018 President Ortega and Vice President Murillo ordered police and parapolice forces to put down with violence peaceful protests that began over discontent with a government decision to reduce social security benefits. By late November 2018 the ensuing conflict had left at least 325 persons dead; more than 2,000 injured; hundreds illegally detained, tortured, and disappeared; and as of November, more than 100,000 exiled in neighboring countries. Beginning in August 2018 the Ortega government instituted a policy of “exile, jail, or death” for anyone perceived as opposition, amended terrorism laws to include prodemocracy activities, and used the justice system to characterize civil society actors as terrorists, assassins, and coup mongers. Although the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) and Prosecutor’s Office detained, brought to trial, and imprisoned many members of the prodemocracy opposition, human rights organizations widely documented that the investigations and charges did not conform to the rule of law. The government continued to make no effort to investigate several 2017 incidents of extrajudicial killings and torture in both the North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions. The army continued to deny its involvement in cases perceived by human rights organizations as politically motivated extrajudicial killings.
Armed parapolice forces arbitrarily detained opposition activists and often held them in makeshift facilities without allowing them to inform family members or seek legal counsel. The detentions generally lasted between two days and one week. NNP officers and prison authorities often denied detainees were in custody. Human rights organizations claimed the NNP and prison system’s inability to locate prisoners was not due to poor recordkeeping but was instead a deliberate part of a misinformation campaign. The government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such acts. Most, if not all, of the hundreds of disappearances perpetrated by NNP and parapolice during the height of the 2018 prodemocracy uprising remained unresolved.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the law prohibits such practices, cases of torture were well documented, and public officials intentionally carried out acts that resulted in severe physical or mental suffering for the purposes of securing information, inflicting punishment, and psychologically deterring other citizens from reporting on the government’s actions or participating in civic actions against the government. Members of civil society and student leaders involved in the protests that began in April 2018 were more likely than members of other groups to be subjected to such treatment.
On February 6, authorities arrested Kevin Solis after he had participated in a protest at Central American University. Prison officials routinely beat him while in custody in La Modelo Prison and doused him with buckets of water throughout the night to deprive him of sleep. As of November, Solis had remained in solitary confinement for at least five months with no access to sunlight. Prison guards threatened him with execution and pointed weapons at his head. In April a court convicted and sentenced Solis to four years’ imprisonment for aggravated robbery and assaulting a police officer, even after the officer confirmed he had retrieved the stolen goods elsewhere.
On March 8, police captured Melvin Urbina in Posoltega. When the police released him on March 10, Urbina was unable to walk and badly bruised in his eyes, ears, legs, back, and abdomen. He was taken to a hospital and died on March 12. Urbina’s family reported police surveilled Urbina’s wake and burial and at one point attempted to take the body to perform a forensics analysis. Human rights groups documented several cases of government supporters who tortured opposition activists by using sharp objects to carve the letters “FSLN” into the arms and legs of opposition activists.
Local human rights organizations said men and women political prisoners were subjected to sexual violence while in the custody of security forces. Human rights organizations reported female prisoners were regularly subjected to strip searches, degrading treatment, and rape threats while in custody of parapolice forces, prison officials, and police. Prison officials forced female prisoners to squat naked and beat them on their genitals to dislodge any supposed hidden items.
Impunity persisted among police and parapolice forces in reported cases of torture, mistreatment, or other abuses. The NNP’s Office of Internal Affairs is charged with investigating police suspected of committing a crime. The Office of the Military Prosecutor investigates crimes committed by the army, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Military Auditor General. With complete control over the police, prison system, and judiciary branch, however, the FSLN governing apparatus made no effort to investigate allegations that regime opponents were tortured or otherwise abused.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Human rights NGOs characterized those detained in the context of prodemocracy protests as political prisoners. The government does not recognize political prisoners as an inmate category and considers all prisoners to be common criminals. According to human rights organizations, the government continued to hold 106 political prisoners as of December, nine of them in solitary confinement.
On December 18, authorities released Justo Rodriguez to house arrest. Photographs showed his emaciated body and a deep indentation in his skull; he suffered a stroke while in prison and could not speak or move his legs.
Political prisoners were kept together with common criminals. Advocacy groups reported that prison authorities instigated quarrels between the general prison population and political prisoners by blaming political prisoners for any withheld privileges, often resulting in violence. Human rights organizations received several reports of political prisoners being beaten, threatened, held in solitary confinement for weeks, and suffering from poor ventilation and poisoned or contaminated food and water.
Political prisoners did not receive appropriate health care, including while suffering COVID-19 symptoms. One political prisoner was denied access to his blood pressure medicine and did not receive medical attention until he fainted in his cell. After the prisoner received medical attention, it was revealed he had suffered a brain hemorrhage, had three blood clots in his brain, and was declared brain dead.
The government did not permit access to political prisoners by local human rights groups.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government did not respect this right. Restrictions on press freedom, the absence of an independent judiciary, and a nondemocratic political system combined to inhibit freedom of expression, including for the press. Although the law provides that the right to information may not be subjected to censorship, the government and actors under its control retaliated against the press and radio and television stations by blocking transmissions, impeding the import of ink and paper, and committing violence against journalists. Some independent media outlets also reported they were victims of cyberattacks. The government sought to control information on the COVID pandemic by restricting news coverage and blocking independent media access to public health briefings, as well as using government-aligned media to publish misinformation.
Freedom of Speech: The government used reprisals to restrict the ability of individuals to criticize the government. Persons who criticized the government, the ruling party, or its policies were subjected to police and parapolice surveillance, harassment, imprisonment, and abuse. Progovernment supporters considered the use of the national flag and the national colors of white and blue as acts of defiance and attacked opposition activists flying the flag or national colors. In August police arrested a woman after she refused to surrender a package of white and blue national flags she was selling in anticipation of the country’s independence day. She was released within a few hours without her merchandise.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views despite government attempts to restrict and intimidate them. Independent media outlets experienced vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, cyberattacks, and criminal defamation charges. The government repeatedly denied broadcasting licenses and other permits for independent media. Further attempts to intimidate came through continued financial audits and attempts by the Directorate General of Revenue to confiscate media channels based on spurious overdue tax debts, which resulted in referral of cases to the Customs and Administrative Tax Court. Independent news outlets faced restrictions on speech, such as not being permitted to attend official government events, being denied interviews by government officials, and receiving limited or no direct access to government information. Official media, however, were not similarly restricted. The government published false COVID-19 data that minimized the spread of the illness in the country. International reports and unpublished official documents showed the government intentionally misled the public about the severity of the pandemic to avoid an economic downturn.
Independent media faced official and unofficial restrictions, reprisals, and harassment, but they were nonetheless successful in expressing a variety of views. Journalists from many stations were threatened and harassed with the purpose of limiting their editorial independence. Journalist association Nicaraguan Independent Journalists and Communicators reported that between March and July, there were 351 incidents against independent journalists, including threats, attacks, harassment, criminal libel charges, and other impediments to carrying out their activities.
Significant state influence, ownership, and control over media continued. National television was largely controlled either by business associates of the president or directly owned and administered by his family members. Eight of the 10 basic channels available were under direct FSLN influence or owned and controlled by persons with close ties to the government. Media stations owned by the presidential family generally limited news programming and served as outlets for progovernment or FSLN propaganda and campaign advertisements. Press and human rights organizations claimed the use of state funds for official media, as well as biased distribution of government advertising dollars, placed independent outlets at a disadvantage.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to government violence, harassment, and death threats. In January a police officer punched Channel 10 journalist Wilih Narvaez during a police crackdown on prodemocracy protesters inside a hotel. Despite hundreds of witnesses and widely viewed video evidence of these attacks, the government made no effort to investigate or prosecute those involved in the attacks. In March progovernment sympathizers beat and destroyed or stole the equipment of two journalists at the Managua cathedral while they were covering an FSLN disruption of a Catholic mass during the wake of a former poet laureate. In April unidentified attackers assaulted the father of exiled journalist Winston Potosme in the father’s home. After the assault the assailants sent the journalist threats from the father’s cell phone. The television station 100% Noticias and the offices of news magazine Confidencial remained closed and under police custody after the 2018 raid of those facilities.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized those who published items counter to the ruling party’s ideology; however, it did this arbitrarily. The government restricted access to public events, obligated independent press to use official media to cover presidential activities, and on several occasions used YouTube copyright infringement regulations against independent media for using official media content. This legal tactic led to the temporary closure of at least two independent media YouTube channels.
To control printing presses, the government continued to enforce the controversial Law 528, or “Ley Arce,” which establishes high tariffs and bureaucratic delays on the importation of ink, paper, machinery, and other printing necessities, despite constitutional provisions protecting media’s right to freedom from such tariffs. After the closure of El Nuevo Diario in 2019 due to the government’s repressive posture and restrictions on press freedom, La Prensa remained the only independent newspaper with nationwide coverage.
In July, Radio Corporacion, an independent radio broadcaster, found its AM radio antenna sabotaged and its transmission cables dug up and cut into pieces. Radio station staff stated that unknown perpetrators carried out the attack with knowledge of where the sabotage could do the most damage. As a result, the radio station lost its ability to broadcast on the AM frequency for more than a week and moved all of its programming to an FM frequency. This resulted in lower listenership, particularly among rural listeners who rely principally on AM frequency for radio transmissions. In September, Radio Camoapa found the air-cooling device of their transmission room damaged. Radio Notimat in Matagalpa remained besieged by police and parapolice, who also surveilled and threatened its journalists.
Restrictions in acquiring broadcast licenses and equipment prevented media from operating freely. Beginning in 2008, media outlets were unable to apply for new broadcasting licenses while the General Law (Law 200) on Telecommunications was under review in the National Assembly. The government extended the validity of existing licenses indefinitely. Human rights groups and independent media also reported that the failure to approve or deny Law 200 resulted in uncertainty surrounding the purchase and import of goods related to broadcasting. As a result independent radio owners continued to defer long-term investments.
Some independent-media owners also alleged the government exerted pressure on private firms to limit advertising in independent media, although other observers believed the lack of advertising was the result of self-censorship by private companies or a business decision based on circulation numbers. Many journalists practiced self-censorship, fearing economic and physical repercussions for investigative reporting on crime or official corruption. In addition media outlet owners exercised self-censorship by choosing not to publish news that affected public perceptions of the government or the FSLN.
Libel/Slander Laws: Government supporters accused independent journalists of slander. Three FSLN party members working in the municipal government of El Rama accused the director of Radio La Costenisima of slander after it broadcast a story documenting corruption in that municipality. When the previous director of the radio station died of COVID-19, authorities transferred the accusation to incoming director Kalua Salazar. Likewise, David Quintana from digital news outlet Boletin Ecologico was accused of slander by a staff member at an official television station. Two other journalists also faced similar charges. Slander and libel are both punishable by fines ranging from 120 to 300 times the minimum daily wage.
National Security: Human rights NGOs and civil society organizations argued the Sovereign Security Law was a basis for the government’s failure to respect civil liberties. Although not cited in specific cases, the law applies to “any other factor that creates danger to the security of the people, life, family, and community, as well as the supreme interests of the Nicaraguan nation.” In October the National Assembly passed the Cybercrimes Law, which includes as online crimes social media posts deemed dangerous by the regime and grants law enforcement access to information systems and other data. Penalties for online crimes include prison time and hefty fines, disproportionate to the crimes as broadly defined by the law.
An NNP regulation restricts criticism of government policies and officials under the guise of protecting national security.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot, the ruling party restricted freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Institutional fraud, among other obstacles, precluded opportunities for meaningful choice.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In 2016 President Ortega was elected to a third term in office following a deeply flawed electoral process. The 2016 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and the elimination of restrictions on re-election for executive branch officials and mayors. The 2019 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections were likewise marred by widespread institutional fraud. The Caribbean regional elections were characterized by heavy security force presence, including antiriot police at polling units, which local press said intimidated voters and led to low turnout. In both elections authorities did not provide domestic civil society organizations accreditation for electoral observation. Opposition party members reported government officials transported FSLN supporters to voting centers. Opposition party members and observers claimed the FSLN used its control over the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) to commit fraud. There were reports of public-sector employees being pressured to vote and show proof the next day at work they had voted. Opposition representatives claimed opposition poll watchers were denied accreditation, FSLN-affiliated poll watchers posed as opposition poll workers, and votes were not counted in accordance with the law.
Civil society groups expressed concerns over the lack of a transparent and fair electoral process leading up to both the 2017 municipal elections and the 2019 Caribbean regional elections. Electoral experts, business leaders, representatives of the Catholic Church, and civil society organizations reported that a lack of accredited domestic observation, in addition to the ruling party’s control over official electoral structures and all branches of government, combined to impede holding a free and fair election.
Political Parties and Political Participation: On December 21, the National Assembly passed a law that would bar from running for office anyone whom the government designated as a “traitor,” defining the term so broadly that it could be applied to anyone who expressed opposition to the ruling party. The Organization of American States (OAS), European Union, and international human rights groups immediately called for the law to be rescinded, saying its purpose was to limit participation in the 2021 presidential election and deprive voters of their right to choose their leader freely. The law entered into force the next day, four days after President Ortega proposed it.
The FSLN used state resources for political activities to enhance its electoral advantage in recent elections. Independent media, human rights groups, and opposition parties reported the government used public funds to provide subsidized food, housing, vaccinations, access to clinics, and other benefits directly through either FSLN-led “family cabinets” (community-based bodies that administer government social programs) or party-controlled Sandinista leadership committee (CLS) systems, which reportedly coerced citizens into FSLN membership while denying services to opposition members. The FSLN also made party membership mandatory for an increasing number of public-sector employees. Observers noted government employees continued to be pressured into affiliating with the FSLN and to participate in party activities. During the year the government pressured public servants to participate in mass public gatherings including sports events, political rallies, and marches despite independent medical association warnings over the dangers of spreading COVID-19 via mass gatherings.
The FSLN also used its authority to decide who could obtain national identity cards. Persons seeking to obtain or retain public-sector employment, national identity documents, or voter registration were obliged to obtain recommendation letters from CLS block captains. Persons without identity cards had difficulty participating in the legal economy, conducting bank transactions, or voting. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership. Civil society organizations continued to express concern about the politicized distribution of identity cards, alleging this was how the FSLN manipulated past elections and that the CSE failed to provide identity cards to opposition members while widely distributing them to party loyalists.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate, although observers noted most women in elected positions at the municipal and national levels held limited power or influence in their respective bodies.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
There was widespread corruption, including in the police force, the CSE, the Supreme Court, customs and tax authorities, and other government organs. Municipal governments and regional governments of the Caribbean Coast were also plagued by corruption. The Managua municipal government reportedly engaged in corrupt practices related to infrastructure projects. The government did not enforce criminal penalties for corruption, allowing officials to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. The Supreme Court and lower-level courts remained particularly susceptible to bribes, manipulation, and political influence, especially by the FSLN. Companies reported that bribery of public officials, unlawful seizures, and arbitrary assessments by customs and tax authorities were common.
Corruption and impunity remained rampant among government officials, and a general state of permissiveness hindered the possibility of addressing the problem effectively. A lack of strong institutions, a weak system of checks and balances, and the absolute political control of government institutions allowed for corruption to continue with impunity.
Corruption: The Office of the Comptroller, responsible for combating corruption within government agencies and offices, did not carry out a complete verification of the government’s full financial statements. For example, the comptroller maintained that Albanisa, a private company controlled by regime insiders that imported and sold Venezuelan petroleum products, as well as associated revenue under the Venezuela oil cooperation agreement, were not subject to audit because the National Assembly did not approve the agreement.
Executive branch officials continued to be involved in businesses financed by economic and developmental assistance funds lent by the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), all of it outside the normal budgetary process controlled by the legislature. Media reported that companies linked to previous ALBA-funded contracts and with links to the president’s family were tightly controlled by the FSLN, with little public oversight. Cases of mismanagement of these funds by public officials were reportedly handled personally by FSLN members and President Ortega’s immediate family, rather than by the government entities in charge of public funds.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials rarely made their financial information public as required by law, and there was no public record of sanctions for noncompliance.