Gross Human Rights Violations in the Context of Social Protests in Nicaragua
The instant report is about the human rights situation in Nicaragua as observed by the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) during its working visit to the country from May 17 to 21, 2018, in relation to the violent events that have been taking place since the State repressed the protests on April 18, 2018, and subsequent events over the following weeks. According to figures gathered by the IACHR, the State’s repressive action has led to at least 212 deaths, 1,337 persons wounded as of June 19, and 507 persons deprived of liberty as of June 6, and hundreds of persons at risk of becoming victims of attacks, harassment, threats and other forms of intimidation.
The findings of the working visit suggest that the violence perpetrated by the State has been aimed at deterring participation in the demonstrations and putting down this expression of political dissent and that it follows a common pattern, marked by: (a) the excessive and arbitrary use of police force, (b) the use of parapolice forces or shock groups with the acquiescence and tolerance of State authorities, (c) obstacles in accessing emergency medical care for the wounded, as a form of retaliation for their participation in the demonstrations, (d) a pattern of arbitrary arrests of young people and adolescents who were participating in protests, (e) the dissemination of propaganda and stigmatization campaigns, measures of direct and indirect censorship, (f) intimidation and threats against leaders of social movements, and (g) lack of diligence in opening investigations into the killings and bodily injuries taking place in this context.
The demonstrators, including university students who took refuge on university campuses, the persons guarding the roadblocks known as tranques in different parts of the country, human rights defenders, journalists, victims and members of religious orders, comprise the groups most affected by the different forms of repression to which the Nicaraguan State has resorted.
The Nicaraguan authorities have cited maintaining public order and social peace as justification for their actions. Nonetheless, the IACHR notes that, in view of the scope of the State’s violence and the type of strategies implemented by the State, it is obvious that there is coordinated action to control public spaces and repress social protest and not just a few illegal acts perpetrated by a few members of the security forces. In fact, the information received describes a pattern of state agents, mainly members of the National Police of Nicaragua and its anti-riot brigades, parapolice forces, as well as strike groups or mobs, acting in concert with the Police, setting into motion a repressive response aimed at deterring society from participating in the demonstrations.
The IACHR notes that this pattern has been implemented with the excessive and arbitrary use of force, including the use of lethal force, deliberately and systematically, by the above- mentioned actors. The IACHR notices that the State responded to the demonstrations in different stages and with different levels of intensity and that different tactics and methods of population on the streets. Based on the information gathered by the IACHR, on April 18, 2018, the first day of the protests, the State response was first characterized by the excessive use of force, mostly, through the use of firearms and excessive use of less lethal weapons, such as tear gas, rubber bullets and buckshot, by the National Police and anti-riot squad, in order to break up protests and demonstrations in different cities of the country. Because the protests continued, from April 19 to 22 the State adopted a more aggressive repressive strategy against the demonstrators and even against individuals who were not taking part in the protests.
According to the testimonies received during the visit, snipers were deployed as another means of repression and evidence suggests a link of the snipers to State agents. The information received by the IACHR from staff members of public hospitals suggests that in the period referenced above numerous victims were treated for bullet wounds in the head, eyes, neck and the thorax, as well as in the back. The mechanics and trajectory of the shots would indicate arbitrary use of lethal force, or extrajudicial executions. According to the autopsy reports examined by the IACHR, projectile entry orifices, in many instances, were located in highly lethal areas of the body, which points to lethal intent of the shots.
Furthermore, the IACHR received extensive information and complaints of irregularities and denial of medical care and the blocking of humanitarian efforts to assist injured and wounded persons in the context of the violent events and repression occurring in the country on April 18, 2018. The restrictions reported on health care during the protests included not only obstacles within hospitals, but there were also reports about orders to restrict the departure and circulation of ambulances and humanitarian aid workers, such as firemen, Red Cross staff, as well as medical staff, paramedics, medical students and volunteers.
Additionally, a number of cases were identified where people did not go to State health care facilities out of mistrust or fear of being subjected to retaliation, and consequently they remained without any medical assistance or resorted to private hospitals, improvised health facilities or volunteer doctors, firemen and medical students, among others. According to testimonies received and public information, even schools, private homes and parishes were outfitted to tend to the wounded.
The IACHR views with concern that the mental health and emotional wellbeing of the population is being seriously jeopardized by the context of violence, harassment, threats and repression, in particular, those who report being victims of human rights violations, their family members, as well as students and residents who demonstrate against the government.
Additionally, the IACHR documented the existence of a pattern of arbitrary detentions occurring over the first days of the protests, mostly of individuals who were peacefully demonstrating, or were traveling on public roads in the area of the incidents. According to statistics, thus far, as of the date of the instant report, at least 507 individuals were arrested, 421 of which are young people and adolescents. These detentions were carried out through the arbitrary and disproportional use of force, and were not based on the grounds provided for under the law, nor did they fulfill formal statutory requirements, but instead amounted to a punishment.
The IACHR also received many testimonies suggesting that most of the individuals detained in the context of the protests, that began on April 18, were subjected to different forms of cruel, threshold of torture, at the time of their apprehension and while they were deprived of liberty. In particular, according to information that was made available to the Commission, during their deprivation of liberty at the respective detention facilities mainly, “El Chipote” and “La Modelo”, as well as when they were transferred to those facilities, the detainees were subjected to beatings and threats. According to the testimonies, the security agents threatened the detainees with death, as well as with assaulting them, their family members, and friends. The IACHR received complaints of the detainees being held incommunicado, inasmuch as they were not allowed to have any contact with their family members or legal representation.
Moreover, several testimonies taken by the IACHR cite attacks, acts of intimidation, threats, including death threats, and smear campaigns against young demonstrators, student leaders, human rights defenders, family members of the victims and members of religious orders in the country. In this regard, the Commission notes that several human rights defenders have been identified and assaulted in the context of the protests, in addition to accused and singled out for supporting the demonstrations. This has all led the Commission to reach the conclusion that in Nicaragua human rights defenders, the victims’ family members and witnesses to human rights violations are at serious risk. Accordingly, the IACHR has requested the Nicaraguan State to immediately adopt precautionary measures to protect the lives and integrity of several individuals.
The Commission also received testimonies about state workers from different institutions, who reported being coerced into participating in pro-government acts, either under threat of being terminated or who actually have been terminated, under “orders from higher up” because they supported the protests. Some workers noted that the government has ordered the social media accounts of workers to be monitored in order to report who is sending messages or information perceived as running counter to the interests of the government.
The IACHR noticed that the State’s response also included the dissemination of propaganda and stigmatization campaigns. Since the start of the protests, information has been disseminated which fails to recognize the grievances of the protests, any information about police repression is left out and the protesters, especially young people who block roads, are accused of being “delinquents” or “vandals” who are committing “acts of terrorism and of organized crime” and causing “chaos, pain and death” in the country and of violating the right to work of Nicaraguan families.
Additionally, during the visit and subsequent to it, the IACHR has noted that the State has adopted measures of direct and indirect censorship restricting the widest range of public information about what is happening in the country. Some media outlets or their journalists are being prevented from doing their job, especially the independent media. During the demonstrations some media outlets were taken off the air, one journalist was murdered and others were wounded.
There were also reported cases of homes being attacked and burned by State actors and armed third parties, which has forced people to be displaced from their homes in search of safety and refuge.
The Commission has also observed several serious violations of access to justice and the right protests, as well as serious irregularities in the recording of fundamental information for the elucidation of the facts, such as failure to conduct autopsies or conducting them based on documents (without any inspection of the bodies), untimely investigations and expert analysis, and shifting the burden of proof onto the victims or their family members. The IACHR ascertained with great concern the fact that the family members of the victims who died were instructed to sign waivers of transfer of the bodies to the Medical Examiner and to waive their right to file complaints as a requirement for receiving death certificates.
In particular, the IACHR underscores a climate of widespread distrust it has observed among victims, family members and representatives in filing complaints with the institutions in charge of investigating the crimes committed in the context of the protests. Victims and family members repeatedly cited a lack of trust in the National Police and the Office of the Public Prosecutor because these institutions would not offer any assurance of independence or impartiality. Additionally, the Commission notes that the victims’ family members were afraid of filing complaints with the National Police because they felt intimidated by potential retaliation from this institution.
The IACHR identifies that there is growing violence in the country. The tension and reaction to the atmosphere of injustice and the failure of State actors to provide protection is leading to actions that fall outside the scope of peaceful protest. Social sectors sympathetic to the government and State agents in turn have been the targets of retaliation and harassment. According to figures provided by the State, from April 18 to June 6, 2018, at least 5 policemen have lost their lives and 65 have been injured in the context of the protests. The Commission also disapproves of these actions, which jeopardize the lives and safety of persons, and must be investigated and punished.
The IACHR condemns the escalation of State-perpetrated violence observed over the past weeks and reissues its call for the immediate cessation of repression. Likewise, it urges the Nicaraguan State to reach a constitutional, democratic and peaceful solution to this human rights crisis. The acts of violence must be investigated immediately, autonomously, independently and impartially, and with strict adherence to international norms and standards on seriousness, thoroughness and due diligence, in order to ensure the right to the truth and justice. In this context, the IACHR reiterates to the State the recommendations issued in its Preliminary Observations on the working visit and issues further recommendations.
In addition to providing a detailed analysis about the human rights situation in Nicaragua in the context of the protests that began in April, this report serves as a basis for the work of the GIEI in order to make a technical decision about the lines of investigation as well as issuing recommendations of actions at the different levels of legal responsibility. Likewise, the instant report serves as guidance for the creation of the Special Follow-Up Mechanism of Nicaragua (MESENI), the purpose of which is to follow up on compliance with the recommendations issued in the reports produced in this context and the precautionary measures granted in the context of this document, as well as to continue to monitor the human rights situation of the country.