Human Rights: Opposition Rights Group Continues Attack
The Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH), headed up by Lino Hernández and directed by some of the leading political opposition figures in Nicaragua, continues its broadsides against the Sandinistas with a wide variety of unsubstantiated allegations of government wrongdoing. Although the CPDH claims to be a professional, non-partisan human rights organization, envío on a recent visit noticed a large painting on a wall of the Commission’s conference room depicting Karl Marx shooting himself in the hand. The hand had “Afghanistan” printed on it. Another wall panel featured a huge print of Pope John Paul II, which in right-wing political circles has become a public statement in itself.
What is the CPDH?In a recent 20-page report on the CPDH, Scottish attorney Paul Laverty, who has worked on human rights issues in Nicaragua, identifies members of the group's board of directors and concludes that the CPDH "represents a narrow spectrum of opinion of Nicaragua's 15 political parties."*
* Laverty’s Human rights Report—The CPDH: Can It Be Trusted?” was commissioned by and is available from Scottish Medical Aid for Nicaragua; c/o Volunteer Centre; 25/27 Elmbank Street; Glasgow G2 4PB; Scotland.)
"The entire board of directors," Laverty continued, "are members of or closely identify with the 'Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinating Committee' (Coordinadora), an alliance of the more rightwing parties and COSEP, the business organization" (p. 6). The author goes on to cite an article by Julia Preston (The Washington Post, July 16, 1986) about the CPDH: 'The National Endowment for Democracy, a public foundation that distributes funds of the US government, gave a concession of $50,000 for assistance in the translation and distribution outside Nicaragua of the Permanent Commission's monthly reports. The concession was administered by PRODEMCA.... During the Congress debate in March (1986] over the package of $100 million, PRODEMCA published full-page advertisements in the Washington Post and New York Times supporting military aid to the contras."
As Laverty concludes: "The article suggests that aid to the CPDH from a North American organization openly in favor of the contras could be seen as compromising its political independence." He also notes that the director of PRODEMCA was quoted by Preston as saying that the $50,000 "was sent to individuals in San José suggested by the Commission (CPDH), so that the monthly reports of the commission could be translated into five languages and 6,000 copies sent abroad."
Hernandez told Preston: "Our institution doesn't receive a cent from PRODEMCA or Endowment." When he made that assertion recently to envío, we asked about the Endowment's funding of the international distribution of the publications. He responded: "If you make 100 photocopies of our bulletin and distribute them to friends, does that make us dependent on you?"
According to the London-based Catholic Institute for International Relations, "CPDH's potentially valuable advocacy for human rights as a private organization is flawed by its willingness to publish unsubstantiated allegations as fact. Its independence has also been compromised by donations from sources close to the US government."*
* Right to Survive: Human rights in Nicaragua,” London, 1987, p. 69
History of the CPDHThe CPDH, founded in 1977, played an important part in denouncing the crimes of the Somoza dictatorship. Founding members represented a broad spectrum of opposition to the regime, from Conservatives to those identified with the Sandinistas. Jose Estéban González, then coordinator of the organization, was also Secretary General of the Social Christian Party.
In its October 1981 report on human rights in Nicaragua, Pax Christi International noted that "the fall of the dictatorship brought about many changes within the commission's direction, as its members who were directly committed to the revolution did not agree with the policy line of Jose Estéban Gonzalez." The latter's Social Christian Party was becoming "a catalyst of the opposition," according to Pax Christi, and González was giving grossly exaggerated reports on the number of political prisoners (a tradition his successors have honored).
In January 1982, González was accused of collaborating with the contras, left the country and was sentenced in absentia. Laverty adds: "He has opened up a human rights organization in Belgium called the Nicaraguan Committee on Human Rights and distributes CPDH material widely throughout Europe."
González's successor as CPDH coordinator was Marta Patricia Baltodano who, Laverty notes, "is now working as director of the contra human rights organization called the Nicaraguan Association of Human Rights (ANPDH)." (See January envío for an analysis of the ANPDH.) On the other hand, many founding members of the CPDH left the organization in 1979 to take up significant posts with the new government.
Scanty detailsLaverty expresses concern about CPDH's general tendency to provide relatively few names and other details in connection with alleged violations. "According to the 11 monthly bulletins of 1987 (July being the only month without an issue), the CPDH claims to have received information on 1,236 abuses of all types. However, of those cases, only 144 names are provided. The majority of those 144 cases give dates and place of alleged incidents, but not all. This means that only in 11.65% of its cases is there the minimal detail provided to identify the person, place, date, incident and perpetrator of the abuse."
Laverty notes that even in the most serious cases (deaths, disappearance, torture), minimal details are missing. And there is no suggestion by CPDH that it is withholding names because of fear of victimization or repression. Anyway, Laverty asks, what justification would there be for withholding names of the dead? "Presumably," he states, "the CPDH doesn't fear victimization or logically it wouldn't have provided any names, instead of a proportion." This lack of detail is serious, in Laverty's view, because the CPDH is not saying that it has "received allegations," but is publishing its information as established fact.
"In Nicaragua," Laverty's report concludes, "there is a need for a vigorous independent human rights organization...that will carry out its research in a thorough and professional manner and thereafter pressure the authorities" when necessary. There is no doubt that the CPDH receives many legitimate complaints of human rights abuse. "However," he continues, "an appraisal of CPDH material makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that its primary task is a political project rather than a human rights project. CPDH rhetoric mirrors that of the Democratic Coordinating Committee, whose opposition to the government is total and relentless.... Government abuses are exaggerated and, in some cases, fabricated. Contra abuses are [practically] ignored, and there is no acknowledgment of the role of the US government.... The CPDH functions as the Nicaraguan cog in the US administration's wheel of misinformation."
CPDH on political prisonersOne of the most alarming charges made frequently by current coordinator Hernández is his estimate that there are about 6,000 political prisoners in Nicaragua. In December, President Ortega reported that there are 1,744 former members of Somoza’s National Guard jail, along with 1,398 charged or convicted contras. These figures reflect a slight decrease from the 1,822 and 1,532, respectively, reported by the International Red Cross after a census of the prison population in February 1988.
Since according to Laverty that figure does not include the former National Guardsmen, how does he come up with his figure of 6,000 political prisoners? In the first place, he has a most unusual definition of “political prisoner”—“a person who is detained by state security and processed on the basis of a special law of maintenance of public order, investigated by state security and processed with a special procedure” (from a January 1988 address by Hernández cited by Laverty),
During envío’s interview with Hernández, he offered essentially the same definition, referring to the now-abolished People’s Anti-Somocista Tribunals. For Hernández, anyone tried by such courts, which Nicaraguan officials have recognized as inadequate in terms of due process, is ipso facto a political prisoner.
“By any comparison this is an extremely loose definition,” Laverty observes, “and would not even be considered by any major human rights organization as a suitable working guideline.” Laverty cites an Amnesty International definition of prisoners of conscience: “People detained for their beliefs, color, sex, ethnic origin, language or religion who have not used or advocated violence.”
By the CPDH director’s definition, all 1,398 contras in prison are political prisoners, despite the fact that their crime has to do with advocating or promoting the violent overthrow of the government. This still leaves thousands of additional “political prisoners” who Hernández contends are hidden away in jails the existence of which escaped the attention of the Red Cross. This would be a near impossibility," writes Laverty, "requiring a culpable degree of gullibility or collaboration from the Red Cross.” The CPDH's inability to provide a list of the alleged political prisoners casts further doubt on its estimates.
Laverty considers it significant that one category—"prisoners captured by state security"—took up 69% of all cases reported by CPDII during the first six months of 1987. For the full year, this category amounted to 52%. "Only eight names are provided," Laverty notes, "and 98.7% of the cases don't have a single detail.” It is clear that being arrested by the police is not in itself a violation of one's rights, but CPDII seems to suggest that it is. Over half its cases for 1987 consist of such situations. The group has also introduced the category of "women arrested."
Military service: A human rights violation?Another of CPDH's categories of human rights violations is that of "military service." Here again, the CPDH tends to define its terms broadly; in fact, a leap in logic is required in order to label military service in itself a human rights violation. In this category for 1987, Laverty observes, names and details are given in only 9 out of 74 cases. "One would assume, therefore," the attorney suggests, "that the few cases with details would be clearly identifiable as abuses. However, in the two cases mentioned in the February bulletin, it is admitted that the two individuals concerned were deserters from military service, although it is alleged they were maltreated after refusing to open the door of their house when a military patrol came to pick them up.”
"The single case mentioned in the May bulletin," Laverty continues, "is similar.” In this case, the individual deserted because he was transferred from the relative safety of Managua to Nueva Guinea, "a zone with a high incidence of armed conflicts." Laverty says that CPDH gives no evidence for its claim that he was transferred to this dangerous area because of his political beliefs. "While victimization of this sort would be quite improper, it is stretching the point to try and describe the incidents as related in this case as human rights abuse. As stated, there was no breach of Nicaraguan law or any provision of international law. No army could function properly," Laverty states, "if desertion was justifiable because of transfer to an area of conflict."
Other ChargesIn the August 1987 issue, under the title, "Repression against the CPDH," a report describes the arrest of Lino Hernández himself during a street demonstration organized by the rightwing Coordinadora. "What the CPDH does not point out," Laverty observes, "is that in terms of the emergency legislation then in effect, prior permission was required to have an outside demonstration and that the Coordinadora group had purposefully not asked for a permit... Mr. Hernández was arrested as an individual who participated in an illegal march."
As for CPDH reporting on contra abuses, this is restricted to one category: persons kidnapped by the contras. For 1987, it mentions a total of 15 such cases, giving names of only 8 persons. These 8 amount to just over 0.5% of the whole year's caseload, according to Laverty, who adds: “There is no mention of contra policy of attacking civilians." Laverty cites Americas Watch and Amnesty International on the abundant proof of contra terrorism.
Laverty continues: "The CPDH's refusal to examine the contra record can he demonstrated by looking at an example, the execution of 10 captured soldiers and the school night watchman by the contras at Cuapa on August 2, 1985.... Americas Watch specifically asked the CPDH on two occasions to investigate the case," but the group declined, saying it could only look into a matter "if the organization received a complaint from a family member."
While practically ignoring contra abuses, CPDH uses extremely strong language to condemn the government. As an example, Laverty cites the CPDH December 1986 bulletin proclaiming: "During 1086 the human rights situation in Nicaragua reached, without doubt, the lowest levels in its history....” Laverty briefly shows how absurd that statement is, giving a summary of the carnage during the Somoza years. Hernández did admit to Laverty that there are no death squads now, and told envío that at least with regard to one human right there has been an improvement since 1979: the right to life, that is, not to be killed extra judicially.
In the June 1987 bulletin we find another category of abuse, according to the CPDH: "the moving of peasants.” In this case, the government reportedly transferred about 1,000 families for military reasons out of a war zone in the Atlantic Coast to a resettlement camp. While a mandatory transfer may involve some abuses, it does not in itself constitute a violation of human rights.
The September issue includes a demand that the government recognize the Conservative Party of Nicaragua as a legitimate party. The CPDH editorializes: "The Sandinista government has not wanted to give it legal recognition, accepting as the Conservative party a faction represented in the National Assembly whose top leaders, in spite of being 'opposition,' maintain a collaborationist stance with the governing party.” This is indicative of the CPDH's partisan politicking, all under the banner of defending human rights. (It is even more out of order in that it is not the government but the Democratic Conservative Party, from which the Conservatives are in fact a split, that refuses to permit them legal recognition—unless they change their name.) The same issue presents a land expropriation as a human rights problem having to do with the right to property.
1988 bulletins: Drop in reported abuses but no drop in tonePicking up where attorney Laverty left off, envío has analyzed the CPDH bulletins for 1988. A total of 929 cases—632 for the first six months and 297 for the last six months—were reported for the year. While CPDH does not call the readers' attention to the fact, that is an overall 25% decrease from the previous year, and an even more notable decrease for the latter half of 1988. Thirty-three of these (3.5%) have to do with specific persons kidnapped by the contras, a slight increase in reported incidents of this nature over last year.
Three categories, which in themselves do not necessarily represent human rights violations, account for a surprising 58% of all "violations" by the government cited. One category is identified in some issues as "arrested by state security," in others as "civilians accused of contra activity"; here the total for the year came to 294 (33%), with 237 cases reported in the first half and only 57 in the second half.
A second category is defined for the first two months of 1988 as "cases of former National Guardsmen that had not been reported or who are sick and not receiving medical attention" or, for the rest of the year, simply "sick prisoners.” These amount to 153 (17%) for the year, with a whopping 41 in December alone; no cases described refer to prisoners who had not been previously reported. The sicknesses cited include bad teeth, ulcers, arthritis, headaches, nasal allergy and what appears to be a sore throat.
A third category rounding out the 58% is, as Laverty noted, similarly questionable as a human rights classification: “military service.” This accounts for 73 of the year’s cases (8%). While there are some allegations that the person drafted was under legal age, the vast majority are as unrelated to recognized human rights violations as they were in Laverty’s study. In several cases, the only stated violation was that the person was “recruited.”
The CPDH tosses off another gratuitous political statement in its September issue, opining that the arrest of two deserters violates their human rights “by obliging them to form part of an army that is not national but of one party.” Here again the CPDH, in the midst of its reporting on human rights, enters into a complex political debate. (The bulletin also claims that one deserter is ill and the other the only breadwinner of his family.)
Examining some cases: Political persecution?The January issue includes the case of a Managua attorney who, while out for a stroll one evening, noticed that he was walking past several parked cars. One was a suspicious Lada (a Soviet make popular with government agencies), in which several persons were sitting. Just after passing this scene, the attorney was knocked out by a blow to the neck. When he came to, he found that he was about a mile from the scene of the attack, with his possessions intact. CPDH reports the victim's contention that "this attack can only be a political reprisal for his defense of political prisoners.” No other evidence is suggested except for that Lada.
Under the heading of "political persecution," the April issue reports that three leaders of the Social Christian Party are complaining of harassment by Stale Security. Names arc given, but no other details are provided. In September, the CPDH lists 15 such cases. One has to do with a leader of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) who claims he was beaten un by two men in a taxi, but not robbed. "This attack," notes CPDH, "is considered to be of a political nature...because the injured person is known for his anti-Sandinista civic activism, and because of the recent and repeated threats made by Sandinista leaders and media against the opposition.” The party charges that the police have not tried to solve the case. (Police negligence, if it was truly that, is a legitimate complaint. As to threats, real physical threats should be investigated and sanctions imposed on guilty persons, but they should not be confused with the sometimes heated rhetoric on all sides of the political debate in Nicaragua today.)
The April bulletin also reports on a letter the CPDH received from the Association of Sandinista Children (ANS), denouncing the death of a 1-year-old and a 10-year-old and the wounding of a 13-year-old in a contra attack near Matiguás. CPDH comments: "It is evident that our commission does not have the capacity to investigate the veracity and nature of acts such as this which occur in the midst of military confrontations in the civil war which, sad to say, we have been suffering now for seven years." Aside from expressing a cold lack of interest in this case, CPDH reveals its ideological association with the right wing by characterizing the war against the US-supported contras as a "civil" war.
The same issue fills seven pages with a list of 69 "civilians accused of being contras." Heading the details, one finds that many of these arrests go back several years, some to 1981, and that two-thirds of the situations present no suggestion whatsoever of any irregularity. In the first case mentioned, the individual was arrested in March; the fact that he was not yet tried is hardly a violation of his rights. In the second case, the detainee reportedly went without trial for two years but—the bulletin itself notes—was freed in March 1988. In some cases where the detainee is said to be awaiting trial, the arrest took place less than a year before. The only legitimate human rights issue here is due process, and in that envío would add its voice to that of the National Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights and other groups in seeking swifter trials for the accused.
The May issue lists 49 persons accused of being contras, of whom some were arrested as far back as 1983. The same bulletin lists 15 persons as disappeared, a few of whom are even cited as disappearing not from Nicaragua, but from other countries, such as El Salvador, where they had fled.
Laverty cited an Americas Watch 1985 reference to the CPDH's use of the term "disappearance": "The CPDH has recorded 'disappearances' throughout 1984 using the term in a looser fashion than is applied elsewhere in Latin America. What the CPDH has called "disappearances' have occurred, for the most part, in remote rural areas and consist of detentions carried out without informing family members, or transfers of detainees without informing family members; most of these detainees have been located in custody at a later date.... Elsewhere in Latin America the majority of those who disappear are not heard from again."
In a category called "special cases," we find a number of complaints by persons who feel threatened with arrest and also fear for their lives because a relative is a contra, because the complainant was a contra, or because (in the case of a former National Guard pilot released with amnesty) he has been visited and questioned by a security agent seemingly fulfilling his duty as a parole officer.
The description of these cases, plus one where a clerk was arrested and charged with defrauding the army chief of staff, offer no other reasons for fear or indications of irregularly.
The October bulletin contains 10 "special cases.” In one, two brothers "managed to escape" from military service and went to Honduras. Since August, their mother had not received a letter from them, so she asks the CPDH to investigate. (This is another case where the "disappearance" did not even take place in Nicaragua.)
Another special case is that of a León photographer accused of stealing a camera. The accused had had some personal problems with the accuser and fears that the matter "may take on a political hue because he belonged to the National Guard, although he was investigated and freed when found innocent. He fears for his personal safety."
In December, the CPDH describes two cases of young men "kidnapped by the Resistance" as "disappearances." The mother of one "wants to know if he is alive and if he is in the hands of the Resistance, adding that if he is, 'I would want him to stay with them because I prefer that he be with them and not mobilized |in the Nicaraguan army].'“ She is certainly entitled to her opinion, but by giving her an international forum, the CPDH once again reveals its political partisanship.
“Can the CPDH be trusted?” concludes Laverty in his report. “It will continue to… denounce genuine abuses, and… will continue to fabricate and misrepresent abuses. Clearly it should not be referred to as independent and its conclusions should be carefully double-checked.”
Like Laverty, envío is distressed that the CPDH irresponsibly mixes many obviously frivolous and politically charged cases with allegations of potentially very serious abuses. The 1987 and 1988 bulletins present allegations of the following violations: murder, torture, rape and disappearances of prisoners; indiscriminate bombing of civilian sites; government intimidation of those who criticize human rights abuses and harassment of opposition political parties; etc.
For the CPDH to be an effective instrument for impartial justice in Nicaragua, it would have to take the following steps.
1) Refuse to have its international publications financed by any government seeking to overthrow the Nicaraguan government by force and violence:
2) Broaden its board to include the whole spectrum of political opinion in Nicaragua,
3) Accept the invitation of the National Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights to work together as much as possible;
4) Investigate the validity of complaints instead of passing on rumors;
5) Filter out the frivolous and refrain from burdening the government and human rights observers with cases that are prima facie without substance;
6) Prioritize the more serious cases;
7) Proceed in a serious and persistent way to get action from the appropriate government agency. Persons found guilty should be punished, as top government leaders themselves have insisted.