Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 101 | Diciembre 1989



Human Rights: Americas Watch Cites "Mixed Results…"

Envío team

Right-wingers in Washington are already using the most recent Americas Watch (AW) report on human rights violations in Nicaragua to oppose the plan to demobilize the contras. But what does Americas Watch have to say about this? "We regret this, above all because those making this argument and seeking further funding for the contras neglect to point out that the contras have continued to kill civilians or prisoners placed hors de combat, and that their leadership has ignored our inquiries about killings by their forces."

Labeling contra abuses as "endemic to their method of waging war," AW said it "favors the demobilization of the contras because of their own record of gross abuses of human rights."

Government violations reported

In its report, "The Killings in Northern Nicaragua," dated October 1989, AW draws attention to human rights abuses in the past two years in remote communities of northern Nicaragua, where, for the first time, AW found a pattern in what had been sporadic abuses by government agents. The report states that "from 1987 through the early part of 1989, Nicaraguan military and security forces engaged in a pattern of killings of contra supporters and collaborators..." AW documented 74 murders, 14 disappearances and two severe beatings.

In 1988 and 1989, AW published reports on these violations and notes that "in 1989, especially during the period since April when the U.S. media gave our findings prominent attention, the Nicaraguan government has responded vigorously, launching a substantial number of investigations."

AW describes the results of those investigations as "mixed," noting that "some prosecutions have been launched, convictions have been obtained and appropriate punishments have been imposed." In other cases, AW reports that the guilty party was identified but absconded, the government absolved those accused, or the accused was convicted but has not been appropriately punished.

With respect to the latter, AW writes, "we recognize the powerful incentive for this leniency created by the amnesty for contras who give up the fight, the release of most of the
National Guard prisoners, and the probable impending release of the remaining prisoners convicted of contra activity. As we have stated on other occasions, Americas Watch believes that those who have committed torture and murder, whether contras or Sandinistas, deserve punishment so long as they receive a fair trial."

While regretting that the Nicaraguan government did not respond more speedily, AW is "pleased that a major effort has been underway in the last several months and that...some prosecutions, convictions and punishments have resulted." Although disagreeing with some of the decisions to absolve state agents, AW notes "with satisfaction that the prosecutional response that has now taken place has reduced sharply the number of new abuses that have been reported to Americas Watch." Only time will tell, however, says AW, if the pattern has truly stopped.

What are the alleged crimes reported by AW to the government? In general, the pattern "indicates that certain regional authorities of the DGSE [state security] or of the EPS [army] have engaged in selective kidnappings and assassinations of persons they suspected of being couriers for, or collaborators with, the contras." In many cases the corpses "showed signs of brutal torture."

"Couriers," AW explains, is a term that has come to signify "a job that not only includes transmitting messages but also collecting military intelligence (spying) on Sandinista troop movements, providing food and shelter to passing contras and storing military hardware such as mines. In some cases correos [couriers] assist in laying mines and other military tasks."

This explanation, especially the last sentence, must be kept in mind in trying to reconstruct the scene of certain alleged crimes, according to a member of the National Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (CNPPDH). "Many contra collaborators alternate between being mere couriers and being full-time contra soldiers," the member said. "Still, if they are captured in combat or arrested, their lives must be protected, and torture is never justified."

Americas Watch notes that "certain regional authorities" are responsible for these crimes. "As far as we can tell from the documentation provided by the government, no complicity by higher-ups in the command structure has yet been established. For our part, we lack evidence of such complicity." AW states, however, that the government took action to prosecute "only after the matter had become a major national and international embarrassment after publication of the cases."

Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, president of the CNPPDH, told envío that prosecution was initiated as soon in many cases as the information was received; in some instances that may have coincided with international publicity.

How has the government responded to AW's reports of abuses? AW recognizes "that, to a degree not matched by other governments in the region, the Nicaraguan government investigates, prosecutes and punishes those responsible for gross abuses." Father César Jerez, S.J., former provincial superior of the Jesuits in Central America and current president of Managua’s Central American University and board member of the CNPPDH, pointed out that "in Central American countries, with the exception of Nicaragua, it is practically unheard of that military or security personnel are prosecuted for human rights violations."

Between October 1988 and June 1989, AW submitted 79 cases of human rights violations to the government. In August and September 1989 the government "replied in writing about cases of 28 killings, three disappearances and one wounding," AW writes. In six of the cases, state security or army agents had been convicted for murder and sentenced to prison terms. "In addition, the government informed us that warrants for the arrest of security agents had been issued in three other cases of killings and one of a wounding, but the suspects had not yet been apprehended."

As for the other cases to which the government responded, in two of them civilian defendants are charged with murder; AW explains that "our witnesses had identified the culprits as military, but the government says they are not." In eight cases, the government's investigation concludes that the victims died in crossfire, and in three cases, they are said to have been killed while escaping arrest. In three cases, "the victim's existence had not been conclusively established," according to AW, and in two, the identity of the murderers had not been established. In one case, the death in custody of the victim was said to have been caused by drug abuse. In one murder case, the defendant was acquitted because of insufficient evidence (though he was convicted in two other cases and sentenced to 30 years in prison). In two cases, the person alleged to have disappeared was located alive, and in one case, the government seems to have misidentified the victim.

After presenting the details of these cases, AW concludes: "Though Americas Watch believes that further investigations and prosecutions are required, we consider that the efforts made to date indicate that our inquiries have been taken seriously. We expect additional results in the near future."

Contra abuses

In letters from April 30 and June 15, 1989, addressed to contra leader Adolfo Calero, AW presented 22 cases of killings and 39 of abduction and forced recruitment attributed to contra forces. In some cases, victims' throats had been slit and they had been otherwise mutilated with machetes.

In addition, the April 30 letter reported that in October 1988 contras "ambushed an ambulance (wounding the driver) and attacked a settlement of displaced persons of war." Three civilian passengers were wounded two days earlier when contras "attacked a clearly marked (white with the Red Cross emblem and white flag) ambulance of the Nicaraguan Red Cross." Later the same month, contras ambushed a truck belonging to a coffee plantation carrying 14 passengers, almost all civilians. "Nine persons were killed and at least four were wounded," AW reported. "Once they stopped shooting, the contras...stole the belongings of the dead and wounded and proceeded to mutilate [a] lieutenant's corpse with their bayonets."

Americas Watch asked Calero for information on "investigations that have been initiated to clarify these violations and to sanction those found responsible for breaking the laws of armed conflict." However, unlike the Nicaraguan government, contra leaders have not responded to AW's inquiries. The October report also presents new cases involving four killings, two woundings and two kidnappings.

The report noted that AW is familiar with "many more cases" of contra violations reported by Witness for Peace. "We have not been able to confirm each of the WFP cases," AW noted, "but in those cases where we have spot-checked WFP information, our research confirms their findings."

On November 2, Witness for Peace stated that "the level of contra activity in October was roughly double that of the previous month, as contras increased their attacks against both civilian and military targets. In the Congressional Bipartisan Accord signed last April," WFP continued, "contras received nearly $50 million in ‘non-lethal' aid, and the State Department promised that the contras would not engage in offensive military operations or commit human rights abuses. Since April WFP has documented 59 contra attacks."

WFP cited the October 30 contra attack on a cooperative in which four men were killed and seven other people wounded. The contras told the wounded "to vote for the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO)," WFP reported. Earlier in the month, contras had killed 18 soldiers and wounded eight when they ambushed two military vehicles taking the soldiers home so they could register to vote. The father of a reservist kidnapped and killed by the contras told WFP: "It's one thing to talk about politics; it's another to terrorize people at gunpoint."

The contras have entered the electoral campaign, WFP noted, "but they're not playing by the fair rules of a democratic election. While contras tell rural residents to register to vote for the UNO coalition, they continue to commit gross human rights violations as a method of political persuasion." In addition to the recent millions approved by Congress for UNO's campaign, the previous $50 million for the contras "is sustaining a pro-UNO campaign in the countryside."

Citing numerous examples, WFP said that contras "are still kidnapping, torturing and killing civilians thought to be Sandinista supporters. The message to rural voters is clear: the contras want you to vote for UNO, but if they suspect you support the Sandinistas, you may be tortured and killed." Another aspect of the contra civilians who have spoken to the contras and contras who have recently deserted explained the message to WFP: If the opposition wins, the war will end, but if the Sandinistas win, the war will continue.

WFP noted: "Ironically, the Bush administration insisted that aid to the contras was necessary to force the Nicaraguan government to conduct a clean election. However, it is the contras who are committing the most violent electoral abuses and using terror as an instrument of political persuasion. The election will not bring peace to Nicaragua," WFP concluded, "unless US aid to the contras ends."

The Nicaraguan government has reported that the contras have been responsible for over 730 killings, the wounding of over 1,000 persons and the kidnapping or disappearance of over 1,400 Nicaraguans since the start of the unilateral cease-fire in March 1988.

Report on Nicaragua's detention facilities

In a separate document, Americas Watch reports on two visits, at the invitation of the Nicaraguan government, to Nicaragua's prison facilities. (See October envío.) AW was specially interested in seeing the state security centers, which had generally been off limits to international human rights groups, and wanted to investigate claims made by the government's critics that there were scores of "clandestine" jails around the country.

Americas Watch representatives Juan E. Méndez and Stephen L. Kass were given unrestricted access to all the prisons and state security centers they wished to see. State security jails, characterized as "grim" because of poor lighting and ventilation, were found by AW to be empty of prisoners.

On August 23 La Prensa published a list of "clandestine jails." AW found that "the list includes many facilities that are not clandestine but are officially and openly used for detentions." As for other sites alleged to be clandestine jails, AW found private homes, a horse stable, offices, a Red Cross warehouse, classrooms, etc. "We do not believe that those places are presently used to hold prisoners," AW concludes.

After all its inspections, AW declared estimates made by the Bush Administration, La Prensa and the anti-Sandinista Permanent Commission on Human Rights of 5,000 to 7,000 political prisoners to be "patently false." AW confirms the recent International Red Cross census, stating that the number of prisoners held "for politically motivated offenses" is not significantly higher than the 1,306 they reported in August.

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