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.
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: Prison conditions continued to deteriorate due to antiquated infrastructure and increasing inmate populations. Despite new temporary holding cells in the Directorate of Judicial Assistance, the rest of the prison system was in poor condition. The government reported overcrowding in five of the seven prisons for men, holding 15,333 prisoners with capacity for 12,600, or 22 percent over capacity. More than 1,000 of these inmates were held in the prison known as La Modelo. Human rights organizations continued to be concerned about prison overcrowding. Due to overcrowding, pretrial detainees often shared cells with convicted prisoners, and juveniles shared cells with adults.
Many prisoners suffered mistreatment from prison officials and other inmates. Human rights organizations confirmed that at least nine men detained in the context of the 2018 protests were subjected to solitary confinement in maximum-security cells of La Modelo Prison, in some cases for months at a time.
Inmates also suffered from parasites, inadequate medical attention, frequent food shortages and food contamination, contaminated water, and inadequate sanitation. The COVID-19 pandemic compounded these conditions. The government failed to take adequate measures to protect inmates from illness. Prison authorities prohibited the delivery of health and hygiene kits provided by family members for inmates to protect themselves from COVID-19, particularly in the case of political prisoners. Human rights groups reported that prison authorities randomly fumigated prisons with inmates still inside their cells. Although sanitary conditions for female inmates were generally better than those for men, they were nevertheless unsafe and unhygienic. The government reported their Human Rights Ombudsman Office received five complaints related to prison conditions between January 2019 and September, of which it resolved four and dismissed one as unsubstantiated.
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 released 8,114 prisoners between January and September. Many of these prisoners were released outside of lawfully prescribed procedures and were told their release was “thanks to the president.”
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.
The government restricted political prisoners’ access to visitors, attorneys, and physicians. Staff members of human rights organizations, family members, and other interested parties were not allowed access to the prison system or to prisoners in custody.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross but denied prison visits by local human rights groups and media outlets. Nongovernmental organizations (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. The government denied all requests from local human rights organizations for access to prison facilities.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Human rights NGOs, however, noted hundreds of cases of arbitrary arrests by police and parapolice forces, although parapolice have no authority to make arrests. Human rights organizations reported police and parapolice agents routinely detained and released government opponents within a 48-hour window, beyond which police would have to present formal charges against detainees. Detentions of political opponents usually occurred without a warrant or formal accusation and for causes outside the legal framework.
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, but this rarely happened in the context of arrests related to civil unrest.
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. A detainee has the right to bail unless a judge deems there is a flight risk. The criminal code lists a number 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. 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. The government reported that the NNP’s Office of Internal Affairs received 1,807 complaints between January and August, finding merit in 766 of those cases. A total of 166 police officers were dismissed or received a penalty for misconduct. Human rights organizations said police underreported police abuse. The NNP routinely rejected complaints filed by prodemocracy opposition activists.
Human rights organizations and civil society activists asserted that the government misused the 2015 Sovereign Security Law, which significantly broadened the definition of state sovereignty and security, as a pretext to arrest protesters and citizens it deemed in opposition to its goals. The government did not cite the law publicly in specific cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGOs and other human rights groups, arbitrary arrests occurred regularly, including in, but not limited to the context of, prodemocracy protests. In many cases the NNP and parapolice detained persons who had participated in prodemocracy protests in 2018 and 2019, but who were not currently participating in any activity deemed illegal or in opposition to the ruling party. Police often arrested these individuals without a warrant and occasionally entered private homes or businesses without a court order. Numerous reports claimed authorities used Directorate of Judicial Assistance jail cells for arbitrary arrests beyond the prescribed 48 hours of detention legally allowed. Many arrests were allegedly made without informing family members or legal counsel. Reports were common of armed, hooded men in plain clothes acting alone or together with police to arrest and detain prodemocracy protesters. Human rights organizations indicated that delays in the release of prisoners after finishing prison terms led to many cases of arbitrary continuation of a state of arrest. The NNP also committed irregular arrests and detentions under the guise of investigations into armed opposition groups or other violent crimes in the north-central regions of the country.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention continued to be a problem. Many prodemocracy protesters were detained and held with no charges and without following due process. Observers noted that in several instances lengthy pretrial detention was intentional against specific protest leaders. Observers attributed other 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, the government generally did not allow those arrested during protests to challenge in court the lawfulness of their arrests or detentions. There were reports legal counsels faced obstacles when they attempted to invoke constitutional protections for detainees, including habeas corpus, and courts frequently ignored their requests.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the government did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. The law requires vetting of new judicial appointments by the Supreme Court of Justice, a process wholly influenced 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 cases against political activists, judges under the inducement of the ruling party handed down biased judgments, including adding jail time for crimes not presented by the prosecutor’s office. Lawyers for political prisoners reported that judges routinely dismissed defendants’ evidence and accepted the prosecutor’s anonymous sources as valid. 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 government reported its Human Rights Ombudsman Office received 874 reports of lack of due process and 227 reports of lack of access to justice between January 2019 and September.
The law provides the right to a fair and public trial. Changes to the law enacted in 2017, however, allowed judges to deny jury trials in a wider range of cases, deny bail or house arrest based on unclear rules, and 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. Many arrested in the context of prodemocracy protests were presented publicly to official media in prison uniforms before the start of trial procedures, jeopardizing their claim to innocence.
On August 15, army personnel captured Hader Gonzalez and Cristian Meneses at the southern border. Gonzalez and Meneses did not receive legal counsel, and their families were not informed of their whereabouts until August 20, when the army presented them publicly, linking their capture to a killing earlier in the year. The army referred to Gonzalez and Meneses publicly as delinquents, although police did not formally confirm their arrest until August 21.
According to the constitution, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Observers claimed, however, that trials against prodemocracy protesters were unduly delayed and did not conform to due process and that defendants’ release was in many cases based on political decisions rather than on rule of law.
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, but judges commonly failed to grant counsel’s access to the defendant. In several instances related to prodemocracy protests, defendants were not allowed to name their legal counsel, and the court appointed a public defender, which family members of the accused and human rights organizations claimed was detrimental to the defendant’s case. In many cases involving the government’s political opponents, private defense lawyers were barred from meeting with defendants in an effort to force the accused to accept a public defender appointed by a biased judiciary. 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 believed the court system continued to operate under unofficial orders not to impose jail time or pretrial detention in domestic violence cases. The policy reportedly applied only to domestic violence cases that authorities considered mild.
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.
There were credible reports that the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated reprisal against individuals. In one example from September, government authorities used the Interpol system to call for the arrest in the United States of the son of a prominent opposition leader. Local press reported the Interpol warrant was based on spurious charges of weapons smuggling to opposition groups.
In April unidentified attackers assaulted the father of exiled journalist Winston Potosme in the father’s home (see section 2.a.).
On July 25, exiled journalist Gerall Chavez reported that his parents living in the Carazo Department had received a letter threatening Chavez with torture and death. Groups of exiles in Costa Rica lodged complaints with Costa Rican authorities, alleging political persecution by parapolice and FSLN sympathizers who crossed the border to target exiles. In October the National Assembly approved the politically motivated Cybercrimes Law, which establishes the government may use the international extradition system to pursue Nicaraguans abroad who commit so-called cybercrimes.
Individuals and organizations may file suit in civil courts to seek damages for alleged human rights violations, but authorities did not always respect court decisions.
The lack of an effective civil law system resulted in some civil matters being pursued as criminal cases, which 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.
The government regularly failed to take effective action with respect to seizure, restitution, or compensation of private property. These failures were exacerbated by the social upheaval in 2018, in which groups of persons, including members of the FSLN, illegally took over privately owned lands, with implicit and explicit support by municipal and national officials. Some land seizures were politically targeted and directed against specific individuals, such as businessmen traditionally considered independent or against the ruling party. In October the FSLN mayor’s office in the city of San Ramon in Matagalpa assessed exorbitant back taxes on the property of an NGO. The mayor’s office refused to accept the remedy offered by the NGO’s attorney, and the property remained in legal jeopardy.
The Office of the Attorney General routinely either rejected requests to evict illegal occupants of real property or failed to respond to the requests altogether. National and local police also routinely refused to evict illegal occupants of real property. Police often took no action against violence perpetrated by illegal occupants, while acting swiftly against any use of force by legitimate property owners. The judicial system delayed final decisions on cases against illegal occupants. Members of the judiciary, including those at senior levels, were widely believed to be corrupt or subject to political pressure. When judges issued orders in favor of landowners, enforcement of court orders was frequently subject to nonjudicial considerations. In the face of government inaction, some landowners were forced to pay squatters to leave their real property. As of August the private sector confirmed approximately 8,500 acres remained seized.
The law prohibits such actions. The government, however, failed to respect prohibitions against unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence. FSLN party-based grassroots organizations such as the Citizen Power Councils colluded with parapolice or party loyalists to target the homes of prodemocracy protesters. Without a warrant and under no legal authority, these groups illegally raided homes and detained occupants. Police routinely stationed police vehicles and officers outside the homes of opposition members, harassing visitors and occasionally prohibiting opposition members from leaving their houses. These actions were widespread in large cities, particularly Managua, Matagalpa, Esteli, Masaya, Rivas, Leon, and Jinotega.
On December 24, the Ministry of Health claimed ownership of several buildings seized by the Interior Ministry in 2018 from independent media organizations 100% Noticias and Confidencial and nine NGOs when it stripped the media groups and NGOs of their legal status. The ministry ordered the seized assets transferred to government ownership to create a Comprehensive Attention and Reparation Fund for the Victims of Terrorism. The government carried out this de facto confiscation without following due process or providing appropriate compensation to the lawful owners.
Domestic NGOs, Catholic Church representatives, journalists, and opposition members alleged the government monitored their email and telephone conversations. Church representatives also stated their sermons were monitored. As part of a continuing social media campaign against prodemocracy protests, ruling party members and supporters used social media to publish personal information of human rights defenders and civil society members. Progovernment supporters marked the houses of civil society members with derogatory slurs or threats and then published photographs of the marked houses on social media. On several occasions the markings were accompanied by or led to destruction of private property. Although the law prohibits the use of drones, some members of the opposition claimed FSLN supporters used drones to spy on their houses.
Inhabitants in northern towns, particularly in the departments of Nueva Segovia, Jinotega, and Madriz, as well as the RACN and South Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACS), alleged repeated government interrogations and searches without cause or warrant, related to supposed support for armed groups or prodemocracy protests, while government officials claimed they were confronting common criminals. Several opposition members who were former Contras claimed they were regularly surveilled by police, stopped by police, and detained for questioning for several hours, usually in connection with alleged contact with rearmed groups or antigovernment protests. The individuals also said progovernment sympathizers verbally threatened them outside their homes and surveilled and defaced their houses.
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.