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. The Nicaraguan National Police’s Office of Internal Affairs is charged with investigating whether security force killings were justifiable and referring cases deemed potentially unjustifiable to the prosecutor’s office. The government did not reply to inquiries regarding whether the Office of Internal Affairs carried out investigations during the year. 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.
On February 12, political prisoner Hugo Torres Jimenez died while in police custody. In June 2021, Torres was arrested as part of a regime offensive to suppress political opposition. Despite several calls to release Torres to house arrest due to his deteriorating health, authorities moved him to a hospital run by the Nicaraguan National Police only a few weeks before his death.
Reports of killings were common in the north-central regions and the North Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACN). Human rights groups said these killings illustrated a continuation 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. Government-supported bandits killed Indigenous persons while encroaching upon and seizing their lands and natural resources. In March, the Sauni Arungka-Matumbak Mayangna Indigenous Territorial Government issued a statement on the killing of one of its leaders, Salomon López Smith, whose body was found one week after he was reported missing. His body showed signs of torture, including broken bones, flayed skin, and mutilations.
There was no indication the government investigated crimes committed by police and parapolice groups related to the 2018 prodemocracy uprising that began due to discontent with a government decision to reduce social security benefits. In April 2018, President Ortega and Vice President Murillo ordered police and parapolice forces to suppress peaceful protests with violence. During the next few months, the ensuing conflict left at least 355 persons dead, more than 2,000 injured, thousands forced into hiding, and hundreds illegally detained and tortured. The violence also spurred hundreds of thousands into exile in neighboring countries. 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 prosecute civil society actors as terrorists, assassins, and coup mongers. Police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office tried, convicted, and imprisoned many members of the prodemocracy opposition. Human rights organizations concluded the regime’s investigations and prosecutions did not conform to the rule of law.
There were no reports of disappearances in the year.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and Other Related Abuses
Although the law prohibits such practices, government 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, opposition leaders, and student leaders involved in the protests that began in April 2018 were more likely than members of other groups to receive such treatment.
According to family members, in May, three political prisoners held in a regional prison in Waswali, Matagalpa, were beaten, isolated, and denied medical attention afterward. The families believed the beatings were retaliation for the prisoners’ participation in a hunger strike for several days.
Prison authorities subjected 27 prisoners held for more than one year in the Directorate of Judicial Assistance temporary holding cells, known as El Chipote, to cruel and degrading treatment. Family members reported the prisoners were intentionally underfed, continually interrogated after conviction, subjected to extended periods of darkness or light, deprived of sunlight, prevented from speaking, denied access to reading material, and in some cases kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. Following widespread criticism for underfeeding detainees, FSLN-aligned judge Octavio Rothschuh oversaw “informative” hearings for the prisoners between August 30 and September 1 and published photographs of them. Several appeared to have lost a significant amount of weight. The penal code does not provide for such hearings, and human rights organizations complained the hearings amounted to an additional form of torture or humiliation. Other political prisoners suffered similar conditions while in detention, including several who had protective measures in place from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Human rights organizations reported female prisoners were regularly subjected to strip searches, degrading treatment, threats, rape, and other gender-based violence while in custody of parapolice forces, prison officials, and police. Family members of prisoners also suffered degrading treatment by police and prison guards during visits, including strip searches, forced squats, and body cavity searches.
Impunity persisted among police and parapolice forces in reported cases of torture, mistreatment, or other abuses. The Nicaraguan National Police’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 government 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.
Abusive Physical Conditions: Prison conditions continued to deteriorate due to antiquated infrastructure and an increasing inmate population. Despite relatively new temporary holding cells in the Directorate of Judicial Assistance, the rest of the prison system was in poor condition. In 2020, the government reported overcrowding in five of the seven prisons for men, holding 15,333 prisoners with capacity for 12,600. The government did not provide updated figures. More than 1,000 of these inmates were held in the notorious La Modelo prison, known as the regime’s torture prison. Due to overcrowding, pretrial detainees often shared cells with convicted prisoners, and juveniles shared cells with adults.
Inmates suffered from parasites, inadequate medical attention, inadequate and contaminated food, contaminated water, and inadequate sanitation.
Many prisoners suffered mistreatment from prison officials and other inmates. Human rights organizations confirmed at least 18 prisoners detained in connection with the 2018 protests or the 2021 crackdown on opposition were subjected to solitary confinement in maximum-security cells, in some cases for months. Relatives reported at least four women political prisoners had been held in solitary confinement for more than one year.
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.
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 government restricted political prisoners’ access to visitors, attorneys, physicians, and consular officials. The government did not permit religious observance for political prisoners, including restricting collective prayer and access to religious texts, as provided for in the constitution. 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 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to some prisoners but denied prison visits by local human rights groups and media outlets. The government denied the ICRC access to more than 40 political prisoners held since May 2021 in El Chipote despite ICRC requests to see them. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) received prisoners’ complaints through family members of inmates but often could not 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 and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government, however, generally did not allow those arrested during protests to challenge the lawfulness of their arrests or detentions. In cases of political opponents, judges regularly denied or ignored constitutional protections for detainees, including habeas corpus.
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, but this rarely happened in arrests related to civil unrest.
Police may hold a suspect legally for 48 hours before arraignment or release; however, a 2021 amendment to the criminal procedural code allows for the Public Prosecutor’s Office to request an extension for 15 to 90 days if a judge deems the case complex. 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 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. In several instances, authorities denied having detainees in custody at a specific jail, including to their family members or legal counsel. Police routinely rejected complaints filed by prodemocracy activists. Human rights organizations reported police and parapolice agents routinely detained and released government opponents within a 48-hour window, beyond which the Public Prosecutor’s Office is required to obtain an extension limited to no more than 90 days to continue its investigation. In several cases, police abused extensions by failing to begin investigations until they were granted.
The government used money laundering laws, a foreign agents law, and a law for the defense of sovereignty to threaten, harass, and unjustly detain political opponents, journalists, and civil society activists. Human rights organizations and civil society activists asserted these laws constituted part of a larger scheme by the government to exert its own concept of sovereign security, laid out in the 2015 Sovereign Security Law, which significantly broadened the definition of state sovereignty and security, as a pretext to arrest protesters and other persons the government deemed in opposition to its goals.
Arbitrary Arrest: Human rights NGOs noted cases of arbitrary arrests by police and parapolice forces, although parapolice have no authority to make arrests. In several cases, police made arrests without a warrant and detained suspects incommunicado for several days before informing their families. Detentions of political opponents mostly occurred without a warrant or formal accusation and for causes the law does not authorize.
According to NGOs and other human rights groups, arbitrary arrests occurred regularly, particularly of persons the government deemed active opposition members or participants in previous prodemocracy protests. The government detained several members of the Roman Catholic Church for extended periods without formal charges. On August 19, police raided the Matagalpa episcopal church residence without a warrant and detained Catholic Bishop Monsignor Rolando Álvarez and six other clergy and laity. The raid occurred two weeks after police confined them to the residence. On August 20, police authorities issued a press release stating that Álvarez would be detained in his parents’ home in Managua, amounting to de facto house arrest. The others were taken to El Chipote.
In many cases, police and parapolice detained persons who had participated in prodemocracy protests in 2018 and 2019 but who were not at the time of their detention engaging 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. In several cases, police raided and ransacked the houses of those detained, also without court warrants. 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.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention continued to be a problem. Many opposition leaders and prodemocracy protesters were detained and held with no charges and without being granted due process. Observers noted that in several instances authorities deliberately imposed lengthy pretrial detentions 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.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the government did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. The law requires vetting of judicial appointments by the Supreme Court of Justice, a process dominated by the government. Once appointed, most judges submitted to political pressure and economic inducements for themselves or family members that compromised their independence. FSLN-aligned judges regularly dismissed requests for appeals, on some occasions despite having conceded that irregularities had occurred during the trial.
NGOs complained of delayed justice caused by judicial inaction and widespread impunity, especially in cases involving family and domestic violence and sexual abuse. In cases against political activists, judges handed down biased judgments at the bidding of the government. Lawyers for political prisoners reported that judges routinely dismissed defendants’ evidence and accepted prosecutors’ anonymous sources. In many cases, trial start times were changed with no notification provided to one or both parties to the trial, according to human rights organizations. Authorities occasionally failed to respect court orders.
The law provides the right to a fair and public trial, but the judiciary generally did not enforce this right. The law allows 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 were often denied the right to be informed promptly of the charges against them; have a fair, timely, and public trial; be present at their trial; have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; have representation by or access to private defense council; confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present their own defense or witnesses; not be compelled to testify; or appeal. While the law establishes specific time periods for cases to come to trial, most cases encountered long delays. Prisoners also reported a lack of immediate access to an attorney or legal counsel and were not afforded one during their detention.
According to the constitution, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Observers claimed, however, that the extension of a pretrial detention from 48 hours to up to 90 days while an investigation takes place posed an undue presumption of guilt on defendants.
Although the constitution recognizes Indigenous languages, Indigenous defendants were not always granted court interpreters or translators.
The hearings for political prisoners or those deemed to be opponents of the government did not conform to legal procedures. The defendants were detained without warrants and were not afforded legal counsel of their choice or access to their family members within 48 hours after their detention or during at least two initial hearings. Their location was not disclosed, and their cases did not appear in an online system providing public access to legal cases. Judges dismissed or ignored habeas corpus writs in the prisoners’ favor, hearings and trials were closed to the public and held within the detention center, and when prisoners finally had access to their legal counsel of choice, judicial and prison officials denied lawyers access to their clients and refused to provide court documents to defense counsel before trial, including documents listing charges against their clients. Judges did not record hearings or give defendants’ legal counsel transcripts of the hearings.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office presented police officers as witnesses in hearings on these charges. In her daily press briefings, Vice President Murillo frequently referred to political prisoners as “terrorists” and “coup mongers,” although the prisoners were still awaiting trial.
Women’s rights organizations believed the court system continued to operate under unofficial orders not to impose imprisonment or pretrial detention in domestic violence cases. This informal policy reportedly applied only to domestic violence cases that authorities considered mild.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Human rights NGOs characterized as political prisoners those detained for supporting or participating in prodemocracy protests, as part of the government’s crackdown on the political opposition during 2021, or for expressing dissent. 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 more than 219 political prisoners as of September, with at least 36 of them in some form of solitary confinement. Twenty-seven political prisoners held in El Chipote were found guilty of “undermining national integrity” and in some cases of “disseminating false news.” Political prisoners in other prisons were generally accused of narcotrafficking, possession of drugs or weapons, or minor theft.
The law allows for family visits ranging from every eight to 21 days. Family visits for prisoners the state deemed dangerous enough to be held under maximum security were restricted to once a month. By this measure, political prisoners were treated more harshly than “dangerous” prisoners. Prison authorities held political prisoners incommunicado for 50 to 80 days before allowing them to see an attorney of their choice and receive family visits. In August, authorities allowed political prisoners Miguel Mora and Tamara Davila to see their children after more than one year in detention, after they both went on a hunger strike to protest. In September, 24 other political prisoners began indefinite hunger strikes to protest not being allowed to see their families and to call attention to their situation. Authorities in prison retaliated by harassing them and limiting their access to food.
Political prisoners did not receive appropriate health care, including while suffering COVID-19 symptoms. Political prisoners were severely undernourished, with no access to sunlight or appropriate health-care services. Some political prisoners were denied access to medicine and medical treatment for chronic illnesses.
Political prisoners were kept together with common criminals. Advocacy groups reported 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.
The government did not permit access to political prisoners by local human rights groups.
Amnesty: The government released one political prisoner, held 13 under house arrest, and dropped the charges against one political prisoner.
Groups of exiles in Costa Rica alleged harassment and political oppression by parapolice and FSLN sympathizers who crossed the border to target exiles, as well as by intelligence officials within the Nicaraguan embassy in Costa Rica.
A 2020 cybercrimes law establishes the government may use the international extradition system to pursue citizens living abroad who commit so-called cybercrimes.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: Family members of opposition members in exile were surveilled, harassed, detained, and wrongfully convicted as part of government attempts to force exiled opposition members to return to the country and face arrest. In September government security forces and judicial authorities detained, tried, and convicted five family members of opposition figures in exile under politically motivated laws on conspiracy to undermine national integrity and spread fake news. In one case, police reportedly offered to release an opposition figure’s family members if he would return to the country and surrender himself to authorities.
On September 13, police arrested the wife, daughter, and son-in-law of Javier Álvarez Zamora, who was in exile, after trying unsuccessfully to arrest him earlier in the year.
Misuse of International Law Enforcement Tools: There was a credible report the regime attempted to misuse Interpol Red Notices for politically motivated purposes as reprisal against an individual located outside the country, in an alleged money laundering and usury case. The government froze the assets and seized 38 subsidiaries of his business.
Efforts to Control Mobility: There were credible reports that authorities attempted to control mobility to exact reprisal against citizens abroad by denying them consular services. This prevented exiled citizens seeking asylum abroad from traveling to a third country. Additionally, the government denied entry to several citizens trying to return to the country.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals and organizations may file suit in civil courts to seek damages for alleged human rights abuses, 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 several instances, individuals and groups appealed to the IACHR, which passed their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The government regularly dismissed or ignored orders from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, including orders to protect or release certain political prisoners.
Property Seizure and Restitution
The government regularly failed to take effective action with respect to seizure, restitution, or compensation of private property. Some land seizures were politically targeted and directed against specific individuals, such as business owners considered independent or against the ruling party. The government routinely seized the property of NGOs and private businesses by stripping them of their legal status or otherwise accusing them of breaking the law. In many instances, the government repurposed the property to serve party interests. On April 24, the government seized without legal justification a privately owned building where the Organization of American States (OAS) rented office space. In August, the government gave the building to the public National Autonomous University of Nicaragua to house a “Center for National Sovereignty.”
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, local officials frequently failed to enforce court orders. In the face of government inaction, some landowners were forced to pay squatters to leave their real property. Nine NGOs had yet to obtain a legal resolution or any type of compensation after the National Assembly annulled their legal status and the government seized their properties in 2018.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence. The government, however, failed to respect these prohibitions. Police raided homes and businesses without legal warrants, particularly against political opposition members. FSLN 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 often prohibiting opposition members from leaving their houses. These actions were widespread in large cities, particularly Managua, Matagalpa, Esteli, Masaya, Rivas, Leon, and Jinotega.
The Ministry of Health continued to hold several buildings seized by the Ministry of Interior in 2018 from independent television station 100% Noticias, news magazine Confidencial, and nine NGOs when it annulled their legal status. 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. Government 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.
Police and paramilitary groups harassed and surveilled Catholic clergy and laity, including by preventing Catholic priests from leaving church property for days at a time and monitoring their homilies for alleged messages of dissent or antigovernment rhetoric. On October 19, police encircled a parish in Masaya to intimidate and deter worshippers from holding annual religious processions.
Inhabitants in northern towns, particularly in the departments of Nueva Segovia, Jinotega, and Madriz, as well as the RACN and the South Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACS), alleged repeated government interrogations and searches without cause or warrant. Several opposition members who were former Contras claimed they were regularly surveilled, stopped, and detained by police 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 government required citizens to demonstrate ruling-party membership to obtain or retain employment in the public sector and have access to public social programs.