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 several reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, including during confrontations with armed groups (both criminal organizations and possibly antigovernment groups), in the north-central and Caribbean regions of the country. Human rights organizations and independent media alleged some killings were politically motivated, an allegation that was difficult to confirm in view of the absence of official investigations. In some cases the individuals killed by military or police personnel were members of groups, or relatives of members of groups, that have identified themselves on social media as politically motivated and taking up arms against the government. Organizations reported that common attributes in the killings of such group members included police accusations against the victims of possession of drugs in small quantities after the killings, lack of judicial proceedings, and unwillingness on behalf of police authorities to register investigation requests.
On September 18, the “Ecological Battalion,” a military unit created to guarantee citizen security in rural areas and protect agricultural producers, killed three individuals in Siuna, a community in the Northern Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACN). In its only statement on the case, the military reported the deceased individuals belonged to a group of “delinquents” found in possession of weapons and an unknown quantity of marijuana. A self-proclaimed politically motivated armed group reported that two of the three individuals killed belonged to their movement and called the incident an extrajudicial killing. There was no indication the government investigated those claims, and military personnel did not offer additional statements on the accusations. On November 12 an army unit shot and killed six individuals, including a known opposition figure, his brother, and two minors, after tracking them for nine days in the municipality of La Cruz de Rio Grande in the Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACS).
Reports of killings were increasingly common in the north-central regions and the RACN. These killings were widely believed to be related to the army’s pursuit of what many referred to as armed antigovernment groups in the north-central region, although the army admitted only the presence of criminals and/or delinquents.
There were no investigations or other developments in the 2016 killing of Andres Cerrato or the 2015 killing of Modesto Duarte Altamirano (see also section 1.d., Role of the Police and Security Apparatus).
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the law prohibits such practices, numerous reports alleged police abused suspects during arrest, used excessive force, and engaged in degrading treatment. In the first six months of 2016, the period for which the most recent data were available, the NGO Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) received 610 complaints against the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) for excessive force, arbitrary detention, and cruel or degrading treatment, including in prisons. CENIDH was able to confirm abuse in 391 of those complaints.
There were numerous claims of torture by agents of the Directorate of Judicial Assistance (DAJ), a special police investigations unit, in its jail commonly referred to as “El Chipote,” especially during arrests related to organized crime.
There were allegations that the bodies of individuals or groups of individuals killed in clashes with the Nicaraguan army showed signs of torture, including two of three persons killed in Siuna on September 18 and six killed in La Cruz de Rio Grande, RACS, on November 22.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners remained serious problems in prison facilities.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding remained a problem. In September the government reported holding 17,196 prisoners in facilities with a capacity of 9,008. Due to overcrowding, pretrial detainees often shared cells with convicted prisoners and juveniles shared cells with adults.
Prison conditions continued to deteriorate due to antiquated infrastructure and increasing inmate populations. Many prisoners suffered mistreatment from prison officials and other inmates. Inmates also suffered from parasites, inadequate medical attention, frequent food shortages, contaminated water, and inadequate sanitation. Released prisoners and family members of prisoners reported poor ventilation and lighting in the DAJ jail located in Managua. In March spouses of prisoners held a protest at the entrance of La Modelo prison to complain about poor living conditions and lack of access to health care. They also claimed the prison had cut off service for the internet, cell phones, and landline telephones.
Conditions for female inmates were generally better than those for men but were nevertheless unsafe and unhygienic.
Conditions in jails and temporary holding cells were also harsh. Most facilities were physically decrepit and infested with vermin; had inadequate ventilation, electricity, or sewage systems; and lacked potable water. The government estimated approximately 26 percent of detainees in preventive holding cells should be in formal prisons.
Administration: Although prisoners and detainees could submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions, authorities often ignored or did not process complaints. The extent to which the government investigated allegations of poor prison conditions was unknown. The government ombudsman could serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees to consider such matters as informal alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, although this generally did not occur. In certain instances the government restricted prisoners’ access to visitors, attorneys, and physicians. Staff members of human rights organizations were not allowed access to the prison system or to prisoners in custody.
Independent Monitoring: The government denied prison visits by local human rights groups as well as media. The government denied requests from human rights organizations to access all prison facilities when they attempted to investigate reports of hazardous conditions. NGOs generally received complaints through family members of inmates and often were unable to follow up on cases until after the release of the prisoner due to lack of access.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the government and its agents did not always comply with or enforce the law. Human rights NGOs noted several cases of arbitrary arrests by the NNP and army. These cases included irregular arrests and detentions while the NNP and army investigated armed opposition groups or other violent crimes in the north-central regions of the country. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his/her arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The constitution establishes the NNP as an apolitical, nonpartisan institution protecting all citizens equally under the law, but the government did not treat it as a nonpartisan institution. The NNP Office of Internal Affairs is responsible for investigating complaints and abuses regarding police officers or internal police activities. The NNP responds directly to the president as commander in chief, as established by the constitutional changes in 2014. Human rights organizations alleged the NNP, and particularly the DAJ, served the interest of the Ortega family and its associates and thus operated under a chain of authority that did not follow the standard procedures of a police force. The Ministry of Interior and the NNP each have law enforcement and internal security responsibilities throughout the country. The Ministry of Interior oversees the General Directorate for Migration and Foreigner Services, which works together with police to oversee topics of migration and border security.
The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic responsibilities, including countering illicit trafficking in narcotics and human trafficking and providing for the transportation of election-related materials, including ballots. The army was also involved in detaining irregular migrants and supported efforts to hold and transport them to the last point of entry. Many informed observers in civil society and the independent press regarded the army as a functionally autonomous force responding directly to the president pursuant to constitutional and military code reforms enacted in 2014. The Office of the Inspectorate General is responsible for investigating abuses and corruption in the army, but limited public information was available on its activities.
Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the NNP and the military. There continued to be numerous reports of impunity involving the NNP, and there were instances in which the government failed to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. The government reported that between January 2016 and August 2017, it received 1,864 reports of police misconduct or of human rights violations by police officers. Although the government reported having investigated all of the reports and dishonorably discharging 587 officers, among other administrative disciplinary actions, as a result of the investigations, observers reported the government did not investigate all instances of abuse and corruption.
The NNP Office of Internal Affairs, and to a lesser extent the Office of the Inspector General, are responsible for investigating police abuse; however, corruption, inefficiency, and lack of transparency of the justice system contributed to a public perception of police impunity. In June approximately 40 police officers were detained and investigated for petty corruption. According to independent observers, this investigation was undertaken not to exert the rule of law, but to give a public image of fighting internal corruption, to purge political opposition within the force, and to reduce the amount of severance pay provided to the officers by dishonorably discharging them. There was no official information on the outcome of the detentions or whether the officers under investigation were discharged. Due to limited information on the activities of the Office of Internal Affairs and a general lack of access to government information, human rights organizations and security experts found it difficult to assess how the NNP investigated allegations of abuses and human rights violations by its members.
Observers noted the politicization of the NNP, exemplified by the continued tenure of the national chief of police, making her the longest standing police chief since 1990. The last extension was legal under changes to the constitution in 2014, but the president had previously extended her term through a 2011 executive decree that allegedly violated term limits prescribed in law at the time. The NNP continued to use symbols associated with the FSLN party, including an emblem with party figurehead Sandino’s silhouette as part of the officer’s uniform, and the ubiquitous use of the FSLN party flag at police facilities and celebrations. NGOs and the press alleged the NNP continued to provide preferential treatment for progovernment and FSLN rallies.
Human rights organizations and civil society activists continued to express strong concern regarding the 2015 Sovereign Security Law, which significantly broadened the definition of state sovereignty and security and established a National Committee of Sovereign Security, an executive-level committee with the enforcement backing of the military. The law includes “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” when it outlines potential risks and threats to the country’s sovereign security. Human rights NGOs argued that while the Sovereign Security Law was not cited in cases including the obstruction or prevention of political opposition or civil society rallies, this law was implicitly used.
Impunity remained a problem, and the government took no action nor provided training to increase respect for human rights by security forces. There was no indication the government investigated claims that three members of a self-proclaimed politically motivated armed group in Siuna, RACN, had been tortured and killed extrajudicially, and military personnel did not offer additional statements on these accusations. Likewise, as of December no investigation had begun of the army unit involved in the November 12 killing of six individuals in the municipality of La Cruz de Rio Grande in the RACS.
There were also no developments in the 2012 death of former Contra Santos Guadalupe Joyas Borge (“Pablo Negro”) or in the 2012 case of community leaders Pedro Ramon Castro and Miguel Angel Oliva, allegedly killed by four NNP members in the municipality of Pantasma.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law requires police to obtain a warrant from a judicial authority prior to detaining a suspect and to notify family members of the detainee’s whereabouts within 24 hours. While the law also stipulates a prosecutor accompany police making an arrest, human rights organizations claimed irregularities in arrest procedures led to arbitrary arrest and detention.
Police may hold a suspect legally for 48 hours before arraignment, when they must bring the person before a judge. A judge then must order the suspect released or transferred to jail for pretrial detention. The suspect is permitted family member visits after the initial 48 hours. The detainee has the right to bail unless a judge deems there is a flight risk. A change to the criminal code during the year expanded a list of crimes that may be tried by a judge without a jury and that would not qualify for bail or house arrest during the duration of the trial. In most instances detainees were informed of charges against them, although there were instances when this did not occur, and at other times there were delays. Detainees have the right to an attorney immediately following their arrest, and the state provides indigent detainees with a public defender. There were numerous reports detainees did not have immediate access to an attorney or legal counsel and were not afforded one during their 48-hour detention. In several instances authorities denied having detainees under custody in a specific jail, even to their family members or legal counsel. This occurred particularly in the DAJ jail.
Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGOs and other human rights groups, arbitrary arrests occurred regularly. Numerous reports claimed authorities used DAJ jail cells for arbitrary arrests beyond the prescribed 48 hours of detention legally allowed. Additionally, the number of detainees from other localities brought to the DAJ jail for periods longer than the prescribed 48 hours of detention increased. Many arrests were allegedly made without warrants and without informing family members or legal counsel. Human rights organizations indicated delays in the release of prisoners after finishing prison terms led to many cases of arbitrary continuation of a state of arrest.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention continued to be a problem, especially in the RACN and the RACS. Observers attributed delays to limited facilities, an overburdened judicial system, judicial inaction, and high crime rates. No information was available on the percentage of the prison population in pretrial detention or the national average length of pretrial detention.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: While the law provides detainees the ability to challenge the legality of their detention before a court, procedural information for doing so was not publicly available. There were reports on the obstacles legal counsels faced when they attempted to invoke constitutional protections for detainees, including habeas corpus, and courts frequently ignored their requests.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judicial system did not function independently. The law requires vetting of new judicial appointments by the CSJ, a process unduly affected by nepotism, personal influence, and political affiliation. Once appointed, many judges submitted to political pressure and economic inducements for themselves or family members that compromised their independence. NGOs complained of delayed justice caused by judicial inaction and widespread impunity, especially regarding family and domestic violence and sexual abuse. In many cases trial start times were changed with no information provided to one or both sides of the trial, according to human rights organizations. Authorities occasionally failed to respect court orders.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary did not always enforce this right. According to the constitution, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty; however, observers claimed changes to the criminal and procedural codes enacted in June potentially restrict this right. Under the changes to the law, jury trials would be denied in a wider range of cases, judges could deny bail or house arrest based on unclear rules, and judges could arbitrarily move a case from other judicial districts to Managua, to the disadvantage of defendants, their families, or their counsel. Defendants have the right to be fully and promptly informed of the charges against them and the right to a fair trial. While the law establishes specific time periods for cases to come to trial, most cases encountered undue delay. Trials are public, but in some cases involving minors or at the victim’s request, they may be private. The law requires defendants must be present at their trial, although this was not always respected.
Defendants have the right to legal counsel, and the state provides public defenders for indigent persons. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Although the constitution recognizes indigenous languages, defendants were not always granted court interpreters or translators. Defendants may confront and question witnesses and have the right to appeal a conviction. Defendants may present their own witnesses and evidence in their defense; however, some judges refused to admit evidence on behalf of the defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt.
Women’s rights organizations perceived that the court system continued to operate under unofficial orders to forego jail time or pretrial detention in domestic violence cases. This order reportedly applied only to domestic violence cases considered mild.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
Human rights NGOs characterized Marvin Vargas as a political prisoner. Vargas is a former Sandinista fighter from the 1980’s civil war who in 2011 led protests against the Sandinista administration for allegedly not fulfilling promises established in post-civil war peace accords to aid former Sandinista fighters. Shortly after these protests, Vargas was convicted of fraud, allegedly without due process. Vargas claimed he was beaten, kept under maximum security, and held in solitary confinement during most of his prison term. Vargas was not afforded alternatives to incarceration or early release on account of good behavior, both established in law for the type of crime for which he was convicted. He finished his full term in 2016 but remained imprisoned, reportedly under solitary confinement and maximum security. In June he was convicted of smuggling drugs into the prison and sentenced to an additional 12-year term. Human rights NGOs claimed that again due process was not followed and that there was no further investigation into prison authorities or of the methods Vargas could have used to smuggle drugs into and within the prison.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Individuals and organizations may file suit in civil courts to seek damages for human rights violations, but authorities did not always respect court orders.
The lack of an effective civil law system resulted in some civil matters being pursued as criminal cases because criminal cases were often resolved more quickly. In a number of instances, individuals and groups appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which passed their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
While the government resolved some property claims during the year, it regularly failed to enforce court orders with respect to seizure, restitution, or compensation of private property. Enforcement of court orders was frequently subject to nonjudicial considerations. Members of the judiciary, including those at senior levels, were widely believed to be corrupt or subject to political pressure. The government failed to evict those who illegally took possession of private property.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
While the law prohibits such actions, several domestic NGOs, Roman Catholic Church representatives, journalists, and opposition members alleged the government monitored their email and telephone conversations. In April, shortly after presidential adviser Eden Pastora made a public appeal to identify specific political opposition and civil society members as traitors, a government-affiliated internet site published personal profiles of more than 20 opposition party members, human rights defenders, and civil society members containing car license plate numbers, home addresses and telephone numbers, names of known family members and associates, and pictures of their houses. Civil society members alleged the personally identifiable information was provided by government offices.
Inhabitants in northern towns, particularly in the departments of Nueva Segovia, Jinotega, and Madriz, as well as the RACS and the RACN, alleged repeated government interrogations and searches without cause or warrant, related to supposed support for armed groups, while government officials claimed they were confronting common criminals.
The ruling party reportedly required citizens to demonstrate party membership in order to obtain or retain employment in the public sector and have access to public social programs.