Human Rights: A Pardon for Peace
February 27 was a very difficult day in the life of President Ortega. He presented a bill to the National Assembly proposing a pardon for 1,932 former members of Somoza's National Guard who have been in prison since 1979; and he went with his mother, Lidia Saavedra de Ortega, to put a wreath on the tomb of his brother Camilo, who was killed by the same National Guard eleven years ago near Masaya. The site of the killing is now a small museum that tells how not only Camilo and his two Sandinista companions were gunned down but also how the Guard turned their fire on some peasants who happened by. Lidia and many other Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs had taken part in a Mass celebrated at the museum on February 24 in honor of the fallen heroes.
At the cemetery, President Ortega told a reporter that "the pardon was not fair but it was necessary in order to achieve peace, in order to stop the killing of more young people like those who died in Diriamba, Monimbó, and Masaya and like those who have continued to die during these years."
The President had unveiled the measure six days earlier in front of thousands of people who filled the Plaza of the Revolution to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the National Guard's murder of General Augusto C. Sandino. The news caused a "profound silence" in 50,000 throats, as Barricada described it. The FSLN newspaper reported that many people were critical of the measure while generally accepting it for the sake of ending the war.
Daniel Ortega reminded the crowd that it was because of the revolution's generosity that the Guardsmen were not executed by firing squads after their defeat in 1979 (one of the first acts of the new government was to ban the death penalty). Calling the pardon he was proposing a "bitter pill" to swallow, the President said it was required "because we want to put an end once and for all to the suffering and the war; we don't want to have more and more mothers with hearts broken in grief by the death of a son."
As for contras in jail, the President said that they would be released apace as the contra forces are demobilized. "Many of them," Ortega observed, "are peasants who are victims of Reagan's policy. He made them contras and is responsible for their being behind bars." Political dissidents in Nicaragua would certainly never have become a marauding counterrevolutionary army without training, financing and political support by the United States.
Working out the fetailsOver two full pages of El Nuevo Diario (February 28) were filled with the names of imprisoned Guardsmen to be released by the pardon. The list was part of the bill presented to the National Assembly, which stated that "in the Joint Declaration of the Central American Presidents, meeting in El Salvador on February 13 and 14, the government of Nicaragua decided to proceed with the release of prisoners in order to contribute to creating conditions for the demobilization, relocation or repatriation of Nicaraguans now in Honduras who have involved themselves in direct or indirect armed activities."
In order to fulfill the El Salvador accord, the bill continued, "it is necessary to grant a pardon to the former National Guardsmen who were punished with imprisonment for having committed crimes against the people."
National Assembly president Carlos Núñez indicated that the legislative body would have additional work to do in the area of pardons since in the near future the executive branch will send it a proposal to pardon 800 army and Ministry of the Interior personnel who are being sanctioned for various reasons.
It will not go down smoothlyPublic reaction has generally supported the pardons, although most agree with the president that it will not go down smoothly. Some have pointed out that there is a vast difference between low-ranking National Guard members who were just following orders and the "intellectual authors" of massacres, mass rapes and torture. People who have studied the behavior of the Guardsmen in prison note that a considerable number refused to work or to cooperate in other ways with prison authorities, and some have been heard referring to one another as "capitán" or some other old National Guard title.
A Barricada editorial considered it "terrifying" to imagine that soon the Guardsmen "would hit the streets like dogs thirsting for blood after ten years of abstinence." It is known that many of Somoza's henchmen who were released from custody within a short time after the triumph became contra leaders. The government feels that now they will not be tempted in the same way, since their release is combined with a plan to dismantle the contras.
Crimes not forgottenIn Cry of the People, Penny Lernoux summarized Guard bloodthirstiness in response to the September 1978 uprising: "The Red Cross reported at least five thousand dead, ten thousand missing, over fifteen thousand injured, and twenty-five thousand homeless. Cities ... lay in ashes." The Human Rights Commission of the OAS described the indiscriminate bombing, strafing and shelling of Nicaragua's cities and towns by the National Guard and noted that in some cases children were murdered in front of their parents. The commission also spoke of a generalized repression against all young men between fourteen and twenty-one.
A Matagalpa woman in Lernoux's book described how the Guardsmen killed her mother and slit open her stomach with a bayonet and then cut off her brother-in-law's genitals and stuffed them in his mouth (contra atrocities have been highly reminiscent of these types of practices). Amnesty International quoted eyewitnesses of an execution of 22 young men in León: "They made them kneel in two lines...it seemed like thousands of shots...we could see a Guard shooting his submachine gun at the people writhing on the ground. They then drove a tractor over the bodies."
In Giorgino Andrade, a squatters' settlement in Managua named after a coordinator of the 1980 literacy crusade who was murdered by the left-over Guardsmen, a woman whose son was killed by Somoza's forces said she could accept the pardons as necessary for peace but could not be sure how she will feel when she sees her boy's torturer. Many women have spoken in this way, noting that they know exactly who killed their son,or daughter or husband.
One woman felt "split in two" by the two-edged sword of political necessity and human emotion. Her son, David Tejada, was taken captive by the National Guard and thrown into the Santiago volcano near Masaya. She said that the people, as "the eyes and ears of the revolution," would keep a close watch on the released terrorists.
In Masaya, a group of Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs told envío that they remembered the Guardia's crimes against their dead children as if they happened yesterday and that the memory still made their blood boil. One woman recalled how her son and 11 other students were killed in a raid on a "safe house." Another told of finding her son's body in the street after a demonstration. "Although it's very difficult," one woman said, "I accept the decision to let them go; but they will never escape their conscience."
In the Aldo Chavarría rehabilitation hospital, where most of the patients have lost limbs or have been paralyzed by contra mines or bullets, one young man during Sunday Mass said that Nicaraguans are now being called to take seriously St. Francis's peace prayer: "Where there is hatred, let me sow thy love." The scripture text for the day was that of the prodigal son. Reflecting on this passage, some members of Christian base communities observed that its theme of forgiveness could not be applied directly to all the Guardsmen, since some of them may be neither repentant nor resolved to amend their ways in the future.
Minister of the Interior Tomás Borge, whose decision just after the 1979 triumph not to take physical revenge on his own torturer has become legend, told an assembly of war-disabled that the pardons were "hard to explain." He added, however, that "the revolution means putting into effect the most beautiful human dreams" and that to achieve that "we must defeat the imperialist aggression and do everything to win the peace." History, he said, "will never pardon Reagan."
"Freedom for the Guardsmen," he continued, "is not a question of principles. It would be a violation of our principles if land were to be taken back from the peasants, if our national sovereignty were to be sacrificed in submission to a foreign government, or if we were to stop defending our country. In matters of principle, we cannot, we should not, and we will not make concessions."
Borge's listeners agreed in general with one who said: "We don't want any more mutilated people; we don't want any more war-disabled."
As the discussion of the pardon continued in the National Assembly, some members proposed that the most hardened and dangerous former National Guardsmen, especially those that had committed blatant violations of human rights, be kept in prison to serve out their terms. In particular, the Sandinista Children's Association (ANS) asked the Assembly not to pardon the killer of Luis Alfonso Velásquez Flores, the 9-year-old leaflet distributor murdered on May 2, 1979 in the militant Riguero barrio. According to a 12-year-old student interviewed by Barricada, Luis Alfonso, who was on the wanted list, was seriously wounded before the Guardsmen ran over him with a truck.
On March 9 the National Assembly's Commission on Human Rights and Peace voted to exclude 39 prisoners from the bill sent to the full Assembly, considering them not only guilty of atrocious crimes against humanity but also likely to be dangerous in view of their attitudes and behavior in prison. Among them are eight captains, three lieutenant colonels, one major and four colonels, as well as the murderers of Luis Alfonso and Camilo Ortega.
And the contras' Prisoners? Meeting with Cardinal Obando, president of the National Reconciliation Commission, on March 2 to discuss various aspects of the El Salvador accords, President Ortega urged the CNR to work for the release of those being held by the contras. At his Sunday Mass on March 5, Obando said: "If the Nicaraguan Resistance is holding anyone prisoner, they should return the person as part of the search for reconciliation." Some criticized the if-clause as minimizing the problem and said that the cardinal had made a "weak plea" for the captives. In the same homily, he expressed his hope that the released Guardsmen not encounter a hostile environment.
With the impending release, voices have grown louder demanding that the contras for their part release those they have kidnapped. President Ortega said: "If we are going to pardon some 1,900 ex-Guardsmen, most of whom committed horrendous crimes, we must also demand that the US government and the contras free the kidnapped and stop making Nicaraguan mothers suffer."