Dozens dead, hundreds wounded or detained, plus torture and censorship...
Returning to Washington after his observation visit to Nicaragua,
IACHR Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão told international media that
an atmosphere of “intimidation and harassment is installed in Nicaragua
against students, human rights defenders and people from civil society
who take to the streets.”
He added that “the region is not yet sufficiently attentive
to what is happening in Nicaragua.”
The following is the preliminary IACHR report published on May 21.
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) culminated today a working visit to Nicaragua that took place May 17-21, 2018. The objective of this visit was to conduct a preliminary observation on the ground of the human rights situation in the country regarding the violent events that have taken place since April 18, 2018, document these events and issue the first specific recommendations to the State. To that end, the IACHR worked in three teams, visiting four cities, where it went to state facilities, health centers, hospitals, the Institute for Legal Medicine and detention centers.
Since the onset of the recent protests in Nicaragua, the IACHR has used its diverse mechanisms to monitor the human rights situation in the country, including the installation of a Coordination and Timely Response Room.
Grave human rights violations
During its visit, the IACHR collected documentary and audiovisual information and listened to hundreds of testimonies that show serious human rights violations during a month of protests characterized by the excessive use of force by state security forces and armed third parties. The result was dozens of people dead and hundreds wounded; illegal and arbitrary detentions; practices of torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; censorship and attacks against the press; and other forms of intimidation such as threats, harassments and persecution aimed at dissolving the protests and inhibiting civic participation.
According to the information received by the IACHR, at least 76 people died and 868 were wounded in the country since April 18, the great majority of them in the context of the protests. Of the wounded, 5 are still hospitalized in critical condition. In addition, 438 people were detained, among them students, human rights defenders, journalists and other members of the civilian population.
We urge the State to cease the
repression of the social protest
The IACHR emphatically condemns the deaths, attacks on and arbitrary detentions of students, demonstrators, journalists and other citizens reported in the country since the start of the protests and continuing to date. The IACHR also condemns the deaths of two police officers and assaults against other public officials in this context.
The Commission urges the State of Nicaragua to immediately cease repressing the social protest. In this regard, the State should urgently adopt the measures necessary to guarantee the free and full exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and political participation. The Commission energetically urges the State to diligently investigate these acts, prosecute and punish those responsible and redress the human rights violations of the victims.
Antecedents to the protests
According to the available information, diverse sources mentioned as a precursor to the protests the fire in the Indio-Maíz natural reserve, and as a catalyst the fact that on April 16 the government published in La Gaceta Diario Oficial a social security reform that increased the contributions of workers and employers and also established a 5% reduction in retiree pensions.
The above, together with the dispersing of a demonstration of elderly individuals, triggered widespread protests led by groups of students and other youths, as well as sectors of workers, peasants, environmentalists, human rights defenders and general citizens. Notwithstanding the fact that five days later the government withdrew the social security reform, the protests continued and expanded due to the discontent of broad sectors of society with the current administration. The government’s ensuing lack of recognition or condemnation of the repression that was unleashed produced even greater indignation.
The incidents were reported in the cities of Managua, León, Estelí, Matagalpa, Masaya, Sébaco and Jinotega, among others.
Inadmissible in a democracy
The repressive response also included censorship measures against the press and a blockade of and attacks on the functioning of the Internet media as a reprisal for their coverage of the protests, which can never be justified and constitute a form of censorship inadmissible in a democratic system.
According to information received, the April 18 broadcasts of Channel 12, Canal de Noticias de Nicaragua (CDNN23), Telenorte and Channel 51, the latter of the Episcopal Conference, were suspended. The 100% Noticias channel was off the air six days, which prevented the airing of programs perceived as contrary to government interests; and on April 23, the digital edition of the weekly Confidencial suffered a seven-hour block. Journalist Ángel Gahona was murdered on April 21 in Bluefields while covering the disturbances.
April 20: First deaths and
refuge in Managua’s Cathedral
On April 20 a repression was unleashed in Managua that was led by police forces and groups in vehicles who opened fire on and burned the facilities of the National University of Engineering. In these events many students ran, but several remained trapped on campus and lost their life or suffered serious injuries. One of them was 15.-year-old Álvaro Conrado, shot in the neck and face while bringing water to the university. Witnesses state that the shots came from snipers.
Another group of testimonies indicate that hundreds of students were attacked on the esplanade of the Cathedral by dozens of anti-riot agents who were reportedly acting in coordination with irregular violent groups. Students, relatives, people who were collaborating with the protests and journalists were attacked, so they decided to take refuge inside the Cathedral. According to dozens of accounts, approximately 600 people went inside the Cathedral, where they spent the entire night surrounded, and found protection from priests of the Catholic Church.
Furthermore, there is information that in some cases the demonstrators made use of homemade mortars with gunpowder, rocks and slingshots. The government states that groups of vandals and criminals are operating in the framework of the protests and university takeovers, and have caused damage to public and private property. In the city of León, the studios of Radio Darío, which was broadcasting the protests, were completely burned down and two of the attackers lost their life when the fuel they were transporting caught fire. In the same city the University Center (CUUN) was also set fire in events in which one person died.
Information was also received about attacks by armed third parties on Catholic Church parishes, such as for example those of Matiguás and Sébaco.
Massive and arbitrary detentions
The IACHR also documented a pattern of massive and arbitrary detentions that occurred especially during the first days of the protests against students, workers and young people who found themselves in the area of the incidents. According to data provided by the State, 438 people were forcibly apprehended and taken to police units such as El Chipote, from which 209 were transferred to La Modelo prison in Tipitapa after two days of being held incommunicado, while the others were released. In many of the cases, those detained had been subjected to different forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment during their detention.
Among the denunciations received, those of victims who allege having been hit or insulted or having received no food and little water stand out.
The individuals who approached the IACHR also presented complaints regarding their treatment in La Modelo: having their heads shaved, being tightly handcuffed and subjected to blows and asphyxiating strangleholds. In some cases, they charged that they had lost all their belongings, including cell phones, which remained in the hands of the state agents.
For three days of detention they were not sent before a judge or allowed to communicate with their family members.
State security corps
and shock groups
According to hundreds of testimonies, the repression was directed by the National Police, its anti-riot forces and para-police groups that acted with the support of state agents. According to numerous accounts, these armed groups were used for tasks of intimidation, vigilance and violent acts against the demonstrators.
On the other hand, the IACHR observes that the Army announced it would not participate in controlling social protest and would only act to secure and protect the entities and infrastructure vital for the functioning of the country.
In this context, the IACHR recalls that the State is obliged to not permit the existence of repressive structures, to investigate the acts in which they have participated, to identify and punish those from the State structures responsible for coordinating their operations and to recuperate the legitimate and proportional use of force in the framework of the rule of law.
Disproportionate use of force
Regarding the state forces, the Commission received dozens of witness statements about the failure of the National Police to act with neutrality in these events.
The IACHR observes the high degree of concentrated repression by anti-riot agents against the student demonstrations at the universities, among them the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), the National Agrarian University (UNA), the Central American University (UCA) and the Polytechnic University (UPOLI). For example, in attacks on UPOLI on May 10 and 16, the IACHR was informed that the National Police used rubber bullets and firearms, while at the UNAN the student leaders denounced attacks against students by Police anti-riot troops and said that armed para-police groups held the campus of that university under siege. During the visit the IACHR directly observed the results of an attack on UNA students.
The pattern of the wounds
The IACHR visited hospitals in Managua, León and Matagalpa, as well as the Institute of Forensic Medicine. It also interviewed several volunteer doctors who reported a pattern of wounds by firearms, the majority of which presented the impact of bullets, specifically in the head, eyes, throat and thorax. The IACHR also received information about people critically wounded by gunshot wounds to the back.
The organs of the Inter-American System have reiterated that the use of force must be in line with the principles of exceptionality, legality, need and proportionality. In addition, the obligation to respect, protect and facilitate the right to assembly and to participation in public demonstrations and protests includes preventing actions that could cause bodily harm.
The documentation gathered and the witness statements also permit the conclusion that the National Police and anti-riot forces indiscriminately used firearms, pistols and rubber bullets as well as tear gas to break up protests and demonstrations, without using protocols to regulate the proportional use of force, even if the police were trained in their use.
Use of snipers and lethal force
Various witnesses speak of the use of snipers in places such as the National Stadium and in Matagalpa. These grave acts indicate the possibility of extra-judicial executions.
The IACHR considers that potentially lethal force cannot be used merely to maintain or restore public order. Only the protection of life and physical integrity from imminent threats can be a legitimate objective for the use of said force. Nicaragua should immediately implement mechanisms to effectively prohibit the use of lethal force as a resource in public demonstrations. The Commission has considered that prohibiting officials who might enter into contact with demonstrators from bearing firearms and lead munitions has proven to be the best measure for preventing lethal violence and deaths in contexts of social protests. The IACHR reiterates that firearms and their respective munitions have no place in operations to control social protests and should not be carried by any police official who might be in contact with demonstrators.
Profound distrust of
the institutions of justice
There is a complaint by victims, relatives and civil society regarding the lack of timely, independent and non-revictimizing intervention by the Public Ministry to clear up the grave recorded acts of violence. Furthermore, some of the investigations underway, such as the case regarding the murder of journalist Ángel Gahona, in which two presumed perpetrators were recorded, have been questioned by relatives of the victims. Three mothers appeared before the IACHR to charge that their sons had been accused of the murder of a person during a looting without sufficient evidence and that they had reportedly been victims of cruel treatment.
The Commission recognizes that it received documentation about the murders and wounds attended in hospitals and in the Institute of Forensic Medicine. Nonetheless, it observed cases where the record lacked forensic standards that would permit complete and effective clarification of the acts of violence.
With respect to the Public Ministry, the Institute of Forensic Medicine and public hospitals, the IACHR identified as a pattern that the circumstances of demonstrators’ deaths and injuries were not duly documented. The IACHR received charges that in more than a dozen cases the public hospitals that received bodies of persons killed in those contexts did not perform autopsies, nor were the corpses dent to the Institute of Forensic Medicine once the death was verified for the practice of the required autopsy.
According to the documents to which the Commission had access, in some cases the relatives were required to sign a text requesting that the body be turned over to them without the conducting of these indispensable diligences to achieve justice. The Commission notes that the State is obliged to conduct the studies and autopsies necessary for a complete investigation into the acts of violence, which also presupposes grave human rights violations.
It concerns the Commission that dozens of victims, relatives and representatives expressed profound distrust of the institutions charged with ensuring judicial accountability for these crimes. There are also doubts about the efficacy of the recently created Truth Commission, due to the lack of participation of civil society and relatives of the victims in its creation and the designation of its members.
Atmosphere of intimidation and threats
The IACHR verifies that there is an environment of intimidation against students, demonstrators, journalists and citizens who manifest their rejection of the government and of the repressive actions of state agents. During its visit, the IACHR received reports of threats, including death threats, from state agents and third parties against demonstrators, youths, relatives of victims, witnesses, religious personnel and groups opposed to the government; surveillance by police patrols and private vehicles, as well as harassment on social networks.
The Commission also received multiple testimonies about public servants of different institutions who were forced to participate in pro-government activities under threat of dismissal. The testimonies received led the Commission to conclude that students, human rights defenders, relatives of victims and witnesses to human rights violations are at serious risk. The special vulnerability of these groups requires the adoption of a comprehensive policy of strengthened protection on the part of the State.
The IACHR reiterates that acts of violence and other attacks on human rights defenders not only affect the guarantees pertaining to all human beings, but also attack the fundamental role of society. The Commission reminds the State of Nicaragua that it must guarantee the ability of human rights defenders to exercise their legitimate activities in defense of human rights in all circumstances, free of any restriction and without fear of reprisals. The State should design and implement a policy of comprehensive protection for human rights defenders that addresses the country’s specific risk factors.
for individuals at risk
During its working visit, the IACHR adopted a first set of resolutions on precautionary measures to protect the life and personal integrity of students, as well as of individuals who could find themselves at risk of suffering reprisals as a result of the acts of violence exercised against their family members in the context of the repression of social protests, or in their capacity as survivors, witnesses or people who, like human rights defenders, are providing assistance or documenting human rights violations.
Through such measures the Commission requested the following of the State of Nicaragua: a) Adopt the measures necessary to safeguard the life and personal integrity of such beneficiaries. To that effect, the State should both assure that its agents respect the life and personal integrity of the proposed beneficiaries in conformity with the standards established by international human rights law and protect their rights with respect to acts of risk attributable to third parties; b) Reach agreement on the measures to be adopted with the beneficiaries and their representatives; and c) Report on the actions adopted to investigate the acts that allegedly took place leading to the adoption of this precautionary measure. The Commission will require information periodically of the State of Nicaragua for the purpose of supervising the implementation of such measures. In addition, the Commission will continue to analyze the requests for precautionary measures received during the visit.
The right to health of numerous
injured people was violated
The IACHR identified numerous cases in which persons in need of medical care did not make use of the proper public centers for fear of suffering reprisals and instead obtained assistance in private hospitals, improvised health centers or from volunteer physicians or medical students, among others.
The Nicaraguan Red Cross indicated that it had provided treatment to 553 patients, 235 of whom required transfer to a medical center. The majority of the injuries reported were related to traumas, burns, scrapes or injuries from explosions. It also attended a large number of people affected by tear gas, as well as by bullets of different types and calibers, blunt objects and beatings.
It was also charged that in the framework of the protests, the Red Cross phone number for emergencies was not functioning correctly. The organization observed that communication was interrupted constantly, hindering the work of the volunteers and medical personnel treating the wounded.
A group of firefighters reported to the IACHR that they had been impeded from using official ambulances. Nonetheless the volunteer firefighters were permitted to work, although they charged that they had not received the proper protection to treat the wounded.
Public hospitals ordered
not to attend urgent cases
The IACHR also learned that the Nicaraguan Medical Association condemned via a communique the fact that several hospitals in Nicaragua had refused urgent medical attention to those wounded in the demonstrations initiated on April 18. According to charges made during the visits, there were allegedly administrative orders in the public hospitals to restrict access to treatment for the wounded and hinder access to information. In particular, charges were received with respect to the Cruz Azul hospital, belonging to the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, and the Roberto Calderón, Antonio Lenin Fonseca, and German-Nicaraguan Hospitals and the Oscar Danilo Rosales Argüello Hospital School, all belonging to the Ministry of Health.
Notwithstanding the above, the IACHR verified that some public hospitals treated wounded people and admitted people in a critical state. Information was also received that in some cases, after being operated on, they were discharged in a hurry and some patients had to return given their delicate situation. In this regard, the Commission wants to call attention to the delicate health situation of René Martín Torres Monterio and Jaime José Reyes Teyes, interned in the Antonio Lenin Fonseca hospital; Néstor Sotelo Ortega and Edy Javier Hernández, interned in the German-Nicaraguan Hospital; David Lizano Altamirano, interned in the Manolo Morales Peralta Hospital; and Wilner Josué Rivas, interned in the Santa Fe health clinic of Matagalpa.
In conformity with the right to health, States have the unabrogatable obligation to assure the right of access to health installations, goods and services. When individuals cannot get that right enforced by themselves, as may be the case for the wounded and sick, States must adopt the necessary measures to facilitate that access, which can include searching for and picking up such individuals, as well as their immediate treatment. This includes the obligation of States to adopt affirmative measures to assure health treatment, especially in circumstances of grave danger to life. In addition, States must not impede health personnel from providing medical treatment to persons who need it in the framework of these situations.
Recommendations to the Nicaraguan State
In light of the above preliminary observations of the IACHR, in the exercise of its mandate to monitor the human rights situation in the hemisphere, it urges the State of Nicaragua to implement the following 15 initial recommendations:
1. Immediately cease the repression of demonstrators and arbitrary detention of those participating in the protests.
2. Respect and guarantee the population’s full enjoyment of the right to protest, and to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and political participation.
3. Create an international mechanism of investigation into the acts of violence that occurred, with guarantees of autonomy and independence to assure the right to truth to duly identify those responsible.
4. Guarantee the life, integrity and security of all individuals who are demonstrating and exercising their rights and public liberties and suffering the consequences of the environment of repression, especially regarding students, children and adolescents.
5. Offer effective guarantees to protect the individuals who offered testimony to the IACHR or in any way participated in its activities in the country; and abstain from taking or permitting the taking of reprisals against them.
6. Adopt measures to diligently investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for all acts of violence committed during the protests. In addition, protect the guarantees to due process of all individuals who remain detained for acts related to the protests.
7. Ensure that the security operations regarding protests and demonstrations are executed in line with the protocols of actions that are in accord with the international standards related to the use of force by law enforcement agents.
8. Dismantle the para-police groups and adopt measures to prevent the continued operations of armed third parties who attack and harass the civilian population.
9. Guarantee respect for the independence of the media and abstain from applying prior censorship by any state body, as well as any prior conditions that could imply censoring freedom of expression.
10. Exhort the state authorities to abstain from making public declarations that stigmatize demonstrators, human rights defenders and journalists or from using the state media to conduct public campaigns that could encourage violence against individuals for reasons of their opinions. In addition, effectively protect defenders and journalists at risk.
11. Systematize the information on individuals treated in public and private hospitals as a consequence of the social protests. The record should be specific, indicating date of entry, cause of the injuries, treatment provided and in case of death the reason for it. Said information must be public and disaggregated at least by age and sex.
12. The charges of obstructing health treatment in the hospitals, as well as the humanitarian labor of the Red Cross and firefighters should be investigated.
13. Ratify all international human rights instruments still pending ratification, in particular the Inter-American Convention on the Forced Disappearance of Persons.
14. Maintain the opening to international scrutiny and, in that regard, facilitate the visit of all human rights protection mechanisms of the Inter-American System and United Nations, as well as other relevant actors of the international community.
15. Commit to establishing a follow-up mechanism together with the IACHR for verifying implementation of the recommendations issued in the framework of this visit and its report. Program together with the IACHR a specific calendar of hew visits.
Nicaragua’s painful past
Considering the painful past that affected Nicaraguan society and the historical commitment not to repeat it, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is confident of the construction of a new peaceful, democratic and constitutional solution to the grave political crisis the country is experiencing, and takes note of the installation of a National Dialogue. The indispensable condition for any solution is the commitment to truth, guarantees for the investigations and effective justice, as well as due reparation for all victims and their relatives.
Finally, the Commission is grateful to the State of Nicaragua for the invitation to make this visit, as well as the support of civil society to concretize it. The Commission appreciates all information provided by state authorities and the logistical facilities provided.
The Commission wants to especially thank the hundreds of victims, witnesses, relatives, collectives and organizations that provided their testimonies, denunciations and detailed information about the facts in a complex environment that required acts of courage and commitment to justice on their part.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reiterates once again its commitment to comply comprehensively with its mandate to protect victims and their families, and to observe the human rights situation in the Americas.
A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.
The delegation responsible for the visit was led by Commissioner Antonia Urrejola, IACHR Rapporteur for Nicaragua. She was supported by Commissioner Joel Hernández, Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty, and Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren, Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. She was assisted by Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão; Assistant Executive Secretary for Monitoring Promotion and Technical Cooperation in Human Rights María Claudia Pulido; Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Edison Lanza and for Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights (DESCA) Soledad García Múñoz; and by specialists of the executive secretariat. Subtitles and unofficial translation by envío.