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  Number 457 | Julio 2019
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Nicaragua

Repression in the prisons and abuse in the courts

On June 19, José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch Americas, presented a report in Washington on the abuses inflicted on Nicaraguan political prisoners. In presenting it, Vivanco defined the ruling couple as “international pariahs who have established a tyranny in Nicaragua. For this reason international pressure cannot let up. This regime only understands the language of pressure.” The following are excerpts from that report.

Human Rights Watch

This report examines what happened, after the crackdown in the streets, to many of the hundreds of people arrested by police or abducted by armed pro-government groups. It is based on research conducted in Nicaragua and Costa Rica and a review of official sources….

Our information sources


his report is based largely on interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch researchers with a total of 75 people, including 17 alleged victims of human rights abuses, 21 relatives of victims of abuses, and 34 witnesses to alleged abuses by Nicaraguan police and armed pro-government groups. Witnesses included seven defense lawyers who assisted detainees, 10 medical professionals and first aid responders who attended to people injured during or near demonstrations or tortured while in detention, and three human rights defenders.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three doctors and a psychologist who treated some detainees and reported dozens who showed signs of physical harm consistent with physical abuse and torture similar to that described by the 12 detainees. Two of the doctors also coordinated the work of other medical professionals who reported similar cases to them. The types of injuries they described and the testimonies of their patients—which they shared confidentially with Human Rights Watch—coincide with our conclusions regarding the cases of torture.

The three doctors interviewed by Human Rights Watch (who provided patient care, despite threats from authorities if they didn’t stop and a directive sent to public hospitals orienting that they withhold care from those protesting against the government) suffered harassment from Nicaraguan authorities and had to leave the country.

The Nicaraguan Medical Association stated that nearly 300 doctors, nurses and healthcare workers have been fired for attending to protesters.

We also interviewed six representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) and the International Cooperation Agency for Development of Andalucía. We received responses to information requests from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI).

All those interviewed were informed of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways in which the information would be used. To protect the safety of some victims and family members who shared their stories with us, we have used pseudonyms to identify them in this report or we have deliberately avoided including details about the date or location in which the abuses occurred.

In most of the countries where Human Rights Watch works, the practice is to seek meetings with government officials. However, when conducting research for this report, Human Rights Watch chose not to establish contact with government officials or draw attention to our presence in the country. We made this decision out of concern for possible repercussions to victims and human rights defenders, the risk of compromising our ability to conduct the research, and the safety of our staff.

Three cases detailed by HRW


Vivian Contreras (pseudonym), 32 b


One night in early June, Contreras was walking around a neighborhood of Masaya with a dozen demonstrators. Suddenly, a white pick-up truck carrying police officers showed up and the policemen inside began to shoot at Contreras and the group. “We couldn’t run [very far], because we were cornered by police,” Contreras told Human Right Watch. The deputy chief of police, General Ramón Avellán, was among those who arrested her, she said, adding that he put his gun to her head and said: “You whore, I will kill you.” While Contreras said she was acting as a paramedic and was unarmed, she said that some of the men had homemade mortars (morteros).

When they arrived at the police station, a few hundred meters away, everyone, including the cooks, cleaners, and anti-riot police, hit them. “Someone took my head and hit it against the wall,” Contreras said.

The police officers forced her and the others to sit on the floor and took pictures of them alongside the homemade mortars as well as weapons she said the police planted on them. The officers threatened to kill them and throw their bodies on the side of the road or in a nearby volcano.

In the early hours of the next morning, Contreras said, five policemen gang-raped her. The officers took her to a room in the station, sat her on a chair, and blindfolded her. “They all raped me. They did everything they wanted with me. They did many things to me that I can’t describe... They hurt me and beat me a lot,” she said. “I was shouting and asking for help, but no one could help me because they were the ones [doing it to me],” she added.

Police officers later that day transferred Contreras and the men arrested with her to El Chipote prison. Policewomen threatened them throughout the drive, saying they were going to kill them or never let them out of jail. At El Chipote, a high-ranking police officer threw Contreras against the wall, and said: “Bitch, you are the head of the band, you are the terrorist crook who acts against the government. You won’t leave this place, son of a bitch, I will make sure of that,” according to Contreras.

“I asked for a lawyer,
they told me I had no right”


The interrogation began that same day. “I asked for assistance from a lawyer but [the police] told me I had no right to this,” she said. Although she was in pain from the gang rape and beating, one male and two female police officers interrogated Contreras at least eight times, most of them while she was naked. The police officers threatened Contreras’ children and mother, calling them by name and promising to arrest and shoot them in the head if she did not denounce leaders of the April 19 Movement, a social movement that arose in protest of the brutal crackdown, and other opposition leaders. “When they spoke of my mother, I began to cry. I said that they should ask me whatever they want but leave my family alone,” she said. Between the interrogations, she was kept naked in a cell that she described as “freezing, completely dark, and with a fetid smell as though someone had died in there.”

Shortly before releasing her, police threatened Contreras into reading in front of a camera a confession they had drafted in which she had to accuse various opposition leaders. “They handcuffed me to a chair and a police officer was next to me, pointing his AK rifle at me. I [filmed the confession], but none of the videos came out okay. They wanted me to look at the camera and read the paper without looking at it...”

After a day and a half in detention, the police released Contreras, following pressure from a human rights group and the Catholic Church.

Upon releasing her, police officers told her “they were going to watch me,” she said. Contreras nonetheless returned to Masaya and continued to participate in barricades until they were dismantled during “Operation Clean-Up” on July 18. She fled Nicaragua and said she reached Costa Rica three days later.

Jordan Rivas (pseudonym), 23


An activist connected to the student movement, Rivas was arrested in late May with another student leader. They had spent two nights in hiding, following a conflict among student groups that led to the expulsion of Rivas’ group from a barricaded area where students had established their headquarters. “I had no money, clothes or food and [my friend] wanted to take a shower, so we both went to my mother’s house,” Rivas explained.

As they left the house a few hours later, five pickup trucks carrying several armed and hooded men intercepted them. Rivas said one of them grabbed him by his hair, threw him to the ground, and forced both men into the pickup. The hooded men beat them all the way to the El Chipote prison, Rivas said. When they arrived, police searched their bags and found Rivas’ ID. “These are student leaders,” officers said to each other, according to Rivas. They blindfolded the two, thrust them into a small bus, and drove them away. During the trip, the hooded men continued beating them. “After two or three hours, we arrived at a clandestine place that looked like a ranch,” Rivas recalled.

Struck like a piñata


The hooded men forced Rivas and his friend into a room and took off the blindfolds. They told them they would play “a sort of roulette.” It was a wheel presenting types of torture that his captors physically spun. Rivas said the needle subsequently landed on “piñata”—a Mexican game played in birthday parties in which a papier-mâché figurine containing candies is suspended from a tree or ceiling and beaten until it breaks open. A man who seemed to be in command ordered others to administer this treatment to Rivas. “They blindfolded me again, tied my wrists with tie wrap and suspended me from the ceiling by the wrists,” Rivas said. Over a period of two days, several of his captors proceeded to beat him repeatedly with blunt objects while he was suspended from the ceiling.

While Rivas’ treatment was the “piñata,” he says his friend’s roulette pointed towards “Tarzan’s cry,” which he described as pulling out fingernails. Rivas also said he heard police officers rape Jossiel Espinoza (pseudonym), another former detainee interviewed separately by Human Rights Watch.

Following this torture, Rivas was subjected to a polygraph test. “They put cables on me and said they were going to question me. They said that if I answered correctly, I would go home,” Rivas explained. His captors questioned him about the identity of student leaders, but some of the answers seemed not to satisfy the interrogators, who continued to beat him….

After a while, Rivas said, his captors took him to another room in the same building. There, an older man presented himself as “The Eagle” and told Rivas he had not “passed the test” and could not leave if he did not cooperate. Another man, calling himself “The Condor,” then asked Rivas to implicate another student who “The Condor” said had been involved in the anti-government mobilization.

Killing Bishop Silvio
Báez was the command


Rivas was finally brought to a third room. There, “The Condor” presented him to a masked man. According to Rivas, “The Condor” told him: “Speak with him, he can help you get out of here.” The masked man came closer and said none of what Rivas had said was of any use. He said that if Rivas wanted to leave, he would have to read a text in front of a camera. Rivas said the text was a confession that he had committed crimes including killings and burning buildings. Rivas complied.

The masked man then gave Rivas a cellphone and told him that it would ring in a few days and he would receive instructions. If Rivas did not comply, the masked man continued, someone would kill his family.

The policemen drove Rivas back to Managua and left him on a street near his house. “They told me not to tell what happened to anyone,” Rivas said.

Three days after his release, the cellphone rang. Rivas told Human Rights Watch that a voice that sounded like the masked man’s ordered him to kill Bishop Silvio Baez, a well-known government critic, saying that the police would protect him once it was done. Rivas did not comply and fled to Costa Rica.

Jossiel Espinoza (pseudonym), 26


One day toward the end of May 2018, Espinoza was going from one of the protestors’ roadblocks at one of Managua’s universities to a friend’s house, when he was intercepted by around 40 masked men driving pickup trucks and cars. They immediately beat him, stuffed a sock in his mouth and tied his hands.

“They took me to a clandestine prison. It looked like a ranch, a new building.” He counted between 40 and 60 people working at that clandestine detention center.

There, several police officers questioned Espinoza and subjected him to different forms of torture and abuse, including electric shocks, beatings, rape, sleep deprivation and mock executions. “They made me lie down on the floor with my face covered with a piece of cloth, and they threw buckets of water in my face, to drown me. I remember that I fainted and then they were trying to revive me and I vomited water through my nose and mouth.”

Those in charge of the clandestine detention center threw him naked into a cell and administered electric shocks with a ‘chuzo,’ an electric cattle prod, to prevent him from sleeping. “It hurt so bad that I felt like my heart was coming out of my chest (...) They would throw water on me and then apply the electricity every time they saw I was sleeping. They tortured me with electric shocks to my genitals, I screamed from pain, and then would cry,” he said.

“That torture broke me”


Espinoza said there were around 20 other detainees being tortured at the center, including some who were hung from the ceiling by their wrists and others who had their fingernails pulled out. At some point, he heard noise from a nearby room that he assumed was the sound of a girl being raped, he screamed for them to stop. “For that reason, they tortured me by inserting the handle of a homemade mortar in my anus. I screamed, and they said I would remember this my entire life. They kicked the tube while inserted in me, until they made me bleed,” Espinoza said. “I spent several days in intense pain and did not stop bleeding. This broke me.”

Espinoza said he was subsequently forced to record a self-incriminating video: “They made me learn a script while holding an AK 47 rifle on me. They forced me to speak to a camera and say what they wanted—that I was a member of a terrorist group that would kill archbishop [Silvio] Baez (...) and that we had arms.”

When he was released, the police warned Espinoza not to discuss what happened at the clandestine detention center. They put him in a car and left him on a street with instructions to pray and count down before looking back. Then they drove off and when Espinoza looked up, they were gone.

Espinoza fled to the US.

We talked to detaines
and defendants


According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), as of February 2019 at least 777 people had been detained during the repression of protests and activities against the government.

On February 29, 2019 the President of the Supreme Court, Alba Luz Ramos Vanegas, stated: “There are no political prisoners in Nicaragua and all those apprehended are brought to justice for having committed a crime during the roadblocks during the period from April to July.”

Human Rights Watch analyzed the cases of 15 people tried for presumed crimes linked to their participation in the protests or other activities against the government. The 15 cases include both well-known activists and people off the street, between 20 and 63 years old, who participated in the protests or wrote statements critical of the government in seven cities around Nicaragua: Estelí, Jinotepe, León, Managua, Matagalpa, Masaya and Nueva Guinea.

Some have expressed criticism of the Ortega government for a while, whereas other cases involved people who were previously unconditional supporters of the government, but who began to question it as the repression against protesters intensified. In all cases, the protesters were accused of serious, violent crimes.

Legal cases plagued with abuses


In all the legal cases we analyzed, violations of the guarantees to due process and other rights were committed.

- They were held incommunicado prior to being brought before a judge and in 12 of the 15 cases they were detained more than two days prior to going before the judge, in violation of the 48-hour maximum period stipulated in the Constitution.

In five of the cases that we documented, their family members or lawyers declared they had not received information regarding the individual’s whereabouts during periods ranging from 4 to 22 days. Four of these cases involved forced disappearances, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Several detainees told their family members they had been subjected to beatings, torture or abuse during detention. They had even been denied access to health care.

- Often, police authorities in Managua organized press conferences in which they showed the detainees to the press, accusing them of being “terrorists” before bringing them to trial. Afterwards, official media outlets launched a smear campaign in which the detainees were labeled “terrorists” and shown chained and in prisoners’ garb, thus violating their right to the presumption of innocence.

- Detainees were deprived of their right to freely and privately converse with their lawyers. In two cases where defense attorneys were permitted to visit their clients in jail, they had to speak with them in the presence of police officers, prison guards, prosecutors and/or judges.

- Legal hearings were held behind closed doors. Internal law and inter-American human rights standards require the holding of open hearings, except under certain circumstances. Detainees’ family members and media outlets considered critical of the government were blocked from entering the hearings, especially when a criminal case was starting.

Family members were allowed to enter the room once the proceedings were finished, to see the accused for a few minutes. In August 2018 the Supreme Court prohibited international human rights organizations from entering courtrooms during hearings.Taken together, all these human rights violations severely limit the right of the accused to a fair trial.

Lack of independence
throughout the legal system


Our findings are consistent with the violations identified by international human rights organizations. In January 2019, the IACHR reached the following conclusion: “The hundreds of arbitrary detentions; the selective and massive criminalization of protesters, human rights defenders, journalists, students, social leaders and government opposition figures using unfounded and disproportionate charges; the systematic pattern of violations of the guarantee of due process; the lack of effectiveness of the remedy of habeas corpus; the irregularities with regard to legal defense and publicity of the hearings; as well as the opening of cases related to criminal provisions such as terrorism, interpreted in a manner incompatible with democratic society; the failure to comply with release orders for those who participated in protests around the country; and in general, the manipulation of criminal law for the judicialization of all opposition, have made evident the lack of independence in the Nicaraguan system for administering justice as a whole.”


The full Human Rights Watch report was titled “Crackdown in Nicaragua. Torture, Ill-Treatment, and Prosecutions of Protesters and Opponents” and is available on the HRW web page. Subtitles for these extracts are by envío.

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