Nicaragua Two Years after Accords: Less Liberty, More Prisoners

Protesting the Special Cybercrimes Law in Nicaragua, commonly known as the “Gag Law.”
Two years after the government and the Civic Alliance signed agreements, these have remained unfulfilled. Witnesses to the signing have remained without comment.

By Cinthya Torrez (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – March 29th marked two years since the Ortega regime signed formal agreements with his opposition. They pledged to free all the political prisoners and reestablish Nicaraguans’ constitutional rights and guarantees. These accords, negotiated with the Civic Alliance during the second National Dialogue in 2019, were never fulfilled.

On the contrary, the deterioration of citizen rights has accelerated under the regime’s push for punitive laws. There’s been an intensification of the police state, which has further curtailed public liberties. The number of political prisoners in the dictatorship’s prisons has increased, now well over a hundred.

Jose Pellais was one of the negotiators for the Civic Alliance. He sees: “greater negation of citizen rights and liberties now, than when it [the agreement] was signed. Things have gotten worse. Two years ago, we had little freedom; now there’s even less.”

At the end of 2020, Daniel Ortega sent a package of four laws to the National Assembly. These were approved by the FSLN bench, which holds an overwhelming majority in the Nicaraguan legislature.

On October 15, the Sandinista deputies bulldozed through the approval of the Law for the Regulation of Foreign Agents. That law obligates organizations that receive money from outside the country to register as “foreign agents” with the Interior Ministry. Doing so entails renouncing their political rights.

Twelve days later, the Special Cybercrimes Law, popularly known as the “Gag Law”, was approved. That law is an attempt to control the information circulating on social media and to criminalize independent journalism.

On November 10, the Assembly approved a partial reform of the Nicaraguan Constitution to establish a life sentence for “hate crimes”. The Constitution previously mandated a maximum sentence of thirty years. Final approval of that reform came on January 18, 2021.

Before 2020 ended, the Assembly passed one additional law. This was called “The Law for the Defense of the People’s Right to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-determination for Peace”. It clearly aims at disqualifying government opposition candidates from entering next November’s electoral process. That process is scheduled but has not yet been officially convoked.

Jose Pallais calls the series of laws passed since October, “unconstitutional, restrictive and exclusionary.” They “shamelessly” violate “the constitutional rights and guarantees”. He points out that the agreements signed two years ago sought to form a foundation for mutual respect. This wasn’t achieved.

“Worrisome” silence from witnesses

Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, the Apostolic Nuncio, accompanied the process and signed the agreement as witness. So did Luis Angel Rosadilla, delegate for the Organization of American States. The agreement was formally signed by the regime’s negotiation commission, headed by foreign minister Denis Moncada, and the Civic Alliance. 

Both parties who witnessed the agreement have remained silent in the face of the regime’s total failure to comply. Juan Sebastian Chamorro, another of the Civic Alliance’s negotiators, says that silence “leaves us with some concern. Effectively, I believe, witnesses and accompaniers should issue a denunciation of incompliance, but they haven’t done so.”

Pellais recalls that the Civic Alliance met with the former witnesses following the release of a large group of prisoners. They offered their analysis of the Amnesty Law, approved in June 2019. The prisoners had been freed under the framework of that unilateral policy. The Civic Alliance representatives also gave the Nuncio and the OAS a list of the political prisoners still in jail. They informed them of the government’s continued violations of their agreement to restore Constitutional rights. Since that date in June 2019, the number of political prisoners being held has risen to over 120.

At the time the Civic Alliance negotiators met with the Nuncio and the OAS representative, the latter took notes. They affirmed their intentions to issue a statement to the government through the normal diplomatic channels. “They were going to transmit their concerns privately with the regime’s authorities,” Pellais commented.

In June 2019, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro asked the OAS to appeal for compliance of both accords. He affirmed that, as witnesses and accompaniers of the dialogue, this follow-up was important. Later, the United States Treasury Department emitted new sanctions against functionaries of the dictatorship.

At present, 27 individuals or entities have been sanctioned by the US. They include members of the Ortega-Murillo family nucleus, and 9 public entities or mixed enterprises, including the National Police.

According to Pellais, the opposition has worked for two years to spotlight the government’s violations of the accords. They’ve been doing this since the agreements were signed by the regime, two years ago. This has sharpened “international and worldwide awareness that in Nicaragua conditions are lacking for celebrating quality elections under international standards.”

Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag (center), Apostolic Nuncio, participated in a 2019 press conference about the negotiations. The dialogue between the regime and the Civic Alliance was held at the INCAE business school. Photo: EFE.

The unheeded agreements

On March 27, 2019, the regime’s negotiation commission and the Civic Alliance agreed on the “definitive liberation” of the political prisoners. As part of this, the regime committed to correcting their legal situation. This never took placed in the manner agreed upon. The regime subsequently approved an Amnesty Law and released five hundred prisoners under this law, but their release was conditional. The door was left open to imprison them anew if the former prisoners of conscience engaged in further protest.

Jose Adan Aguerri was also a negotiator for the Civic Alliance. On March 29, he posted on Twitter that a list of 776 prisoners had been presented at the negotiating table. Of these, 771 were released.

“Of that group,” Aguerri indicated, “twenty-two have been imprisoned anew. Since five prisoners were never freed, that leaves a total of 27 people still imprisoned. The liberation of these 27 has been left pending, plus the 86 who were later imprisoned, for a total of 113 people.”

The Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners counts ten prisoners of conscience who were in prison prior to April 2018. That makes a total of 123, not counting the “express detentions” – people held for hours or days, sometimes without a justification.

Without Constitutional Rights

The regime’s agreement to strengthen citizen rights and guarantees included 16 points. Among them were political rights, labor rights and freedom of expression. At the time, the regime assured they would respect the right to assembly, demonstration and public mobilizations. These were all criminalized by the National Police since October 2018.

However, the political and police persecution has continued squelching citizens’ rights to mobilize or express themselves freely. There’s been an uptick in repression. Under the de facto police state, over 80 members of the opposition have been held under forced house arrest in different cities.

Meetings of the opposition organizations are encircled by police. The opposition is under constant threat of riot squads bursting into their establishments. Journalists are stopped and searched, and sometimes have their equipment taken away.

The regime consummated their confiscations of properties belonging to news sites Confidencial and 100% Noticias and numerous NGOs. The NGOs had been arbitrarily stripped of their legal status in December 2018. The properties were turned over to the Ministry of Health and converted into maternity care facilities or addiction treatment centers.

The government also failed to guarantee a safe return for over 100,000 Nicaraguan exiles. These Nicaraguans were forced to flee the state violence unleashed in 2018, taking refuge in other countries. Human rights organizations have denounced cases of exiles who were captured and tried by the Ortega justice system after returning home.

Pellais noted, “the conditions of repression and siege have been exacerbated; they’ve deteriorated.” Aguerri agrees. “Today, more than ever, compliance with the agreement to respect due process is needed. No one should be submitted to arbitrary detentions. We need an unrestricted right to property, the disarmament of the paramilitary, and full guarantees for the return of those exiled.” He assures that the agreements are still in force. Complying with them would be a significant step towards lessening the country’s crisis.

On March 29th, the Civic Alliance issued a statement calling the government “liars and demagogues” for not complying with the accords.  In their view, this has caused the regime to “lose its credibility and legitimacy to continue governing.”

“Violations of the Nicaraguan peoples’ human and constitutional rights have been incessant. They provide conclusive proof that this regime is not interested in peace and harmony for the nation. Instead, they’re focused on imposing themselves by force,” the Alliance statement read.  They urged the international community to maintain their actions and diplomatic measures seeking a civic solution to Nicaragua’s sociopolitical crisis. That crisis will mark three years of existence in April.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.