Judicial System Demands Larger Budget
On May 15, Dr. Rodrigo Reyes, president of Nicaragua's Supreme Court, opened a two-day conference for 100 of the nation's judges on "the independence of the judicial system" with a proposal that the government allocate 2.5% of its funds to that system. The Nicaraguan Constitution, promulgated in early 1987, requires the judicial system to be independent from other governmental branches and free of pressures from other sources. However, Dr. Reyes noted, whether the system functions independently in practice depends on the economic conditions in which it operates.
"The insufficiency of economic resources is an obstacle to the adequate development of the system," he said. Citing the US-supported war as a major cause of Nicaragua's economic crisis, Dr. Reyes also pointed to the issue of national priorities: the present budget for the judicial system is only 0.45% of the national budget. He noted that Costa Rica devotes 6% and Guatemala about 3% to the judicial branch.
Judges without adequate staff and even without sufficient office supplies cannot meet requirements for speedy trials, Dr. Reyes observed. In its report to the conference, the National Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights noted that about 42% of the country's detainees have not yet been convicted or sentenced.
In one of its first decrees, the new government in 1979 ruled that there would be no death penalty in Nicaragua, and the concept of rehabilitation became an important principle in the new prison system. "Under Somoza the justice system served the interests of the ruling class," the attorney general's report to the conference observed. "With the revolution the system should serve the people."
Defenseless orphansProblems remain in the administration of justice, however, and conference participants faced them squarely. The report complained that "people are not well-enough informed about how to make the system work for them and don't know how to get access to it." They are "defenseless orphans," and that should not be the case "in a social system like the one we’re trying to build in our country." The report also complained of a "totally inadequate" public defender system.
Criminal legislation is to be revamped in light of the new Constitution, but many old laws remain on the books. Dr. Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, president of the National Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, urged abolition of a law permitting the police to jail people for up to six months. She noted that common criminals are usually the victims of this law, which deprives defendants of due process. (The commission was one of the sponsors of the conference, along with the International Commission of Jurists, the Inter-American Institute on Human Rights, and the Nicaraguan Supreme Court.)
Dr. Núñez echoed the Attorney General's complaint about public defenders, noting the claim by some prisoners that they have never talked with their appointed attorney and do not even know the lawyer's name. "This is as regrettable in Managua as it is in Chicago," a former resident of Cook County Jail quipped to envío. Dr. Núñez added that her office had received ten complaints of police mistreatment in Managua during the first four months of this year. Some charge rough handling at the moment of arrest, others claim that pressure is applied to make them confess. Dr. Núñez reported that disciplinary action has been taken, sometimes in response to investigations by her office.
In spite of the war, the economic crisis and all the related problems in the criminal justice system as well as in other sectors of society, Nicaragua talks openly about its shortcomings and tries to deal with them. Recommendations from the conference are currently under study by the government. "The example of Nicaragua puts the rich countries of Western Europe to shame," said a West German judge who participated in the conference. "Even under difficult war conditions, Nicaragua is concerned about respect for civil and human rights." He cited a 1986 statement by Dr. Núñez: "Our hard task of seeing to it that human rights are respected must be part of the revolution, alongside fighting the contras."