The Attorneys that Dare to Defend Nicaragua’s Political Prisoners

Left to right: Yonarqui Martinez, Julio Montenegro and Leyla Prado, all attorneys who defend the political prisoners. Photo: Carlos Herrera, Claudia Tijerino / Confidencial


The Permanent Commission for Human Rights (CPDH) in Nicaragua has defended more than 200 of the dictatorship’s 777 prisoners.

The lawyers who’ve taken on the defense of the dictatorship’s prisoners of conscience face their own ordeals, including fabricated crimes and even attempts on their lives.


By Keyling Romero (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Attorney Yonarqui Martinez’ voice quavers when she speaks of the trial of Dillon Ramos, the student from Matagalpa who abandoned the ranks of the government-sponsored Union of University Students (UNEN) to join the civic protest. 

Martinez recalls standing there beside this young man of 20 and hearing the verdict imposed on him: 25 years and 6 months in jail. The sentence was imposed by the Ortega-allied judge for the supposed crimes of terrorism, theft and simple kidnapping. Recalling that moment, she says she felt something break inside of her.

“It affects you deeply when you see an innocent person condemned, after you’ve given proof of innocence with the law in hand. That hurts you deeply as a human being…because the kids are always hoping that the judge will react and issue a resolution according to the Law.  Nonetheless, that doesn’t occur,” she states sadly.

Martinez is one of the lawyers who has taken on the most cases of political prisoners, and she’s suffered harassment, defamation and attempts on her life by those trying to force her to abandon these cases.

The most recent threat could put her on the prisoner’s bench herself, or into the same jail as those she defends: a legal process was recently initiated against her wherein she’s accused falsely of stealing from an employee of the Judicial Branch. If the accusation is accepted, her defense attorney would be her colleague, Julio Montenegro, another of the attorneys who defend the political prisoners. Montenegro, like Martinez and their fellow lawyer Leyla Prado, face similar threats.

Since the dictatorship ordered the criminalization of the civic protests that began in April, these attorneys must deal with the constant obstacles of the Ortega legal system, which condemns a priori the young people, student leaders, rural leaders, activists and citizens in general who rebel against the dictatorship.

The “coup plotters’ defenders”

Left to right: Yonarqui Martinez, Julio Montenegro and Leyla Prado, all attorneys who defend the political prisoners. Photo: Carlos Herrera, Claudia Tijerino / Confidencial

The first time that Julio Montenegro, attorney with the Permanent Commission for Human Rights (CPDH), came to the Managua Courthouse to assume the defense of a political prisoner, he had to pound on the glass doors of the hearings room so they would let him in. They knew he had come to defend one of those who had rebelled against the dictatorship, protesters the regime had decided to call “Coup plotters”.

“The very accusations that the District Attorney’s office has made aren’t objective and don’t comply with Article 90 of the Penal Code. They could perfectly well have returned the processing papers to the Police because the requirements of the law weren’t fulfilled, but instead we see a kind of justification of any kind of error that the police files contain,” alleges Montenegro, who’s in charge of defending 75 political prisoners.

Only once, he recalls, did a judge refuse to admit the accusations, but doing so cost him his post. The judge was Carlos Solis, was demoted and reassigned to a lower court. This all occurred in the case of the political prisoner Reynaldo Lira, who was a human rights promotor for the CPDH in Boaco.

In February, Marcos Carmona, CPDH director, denounced the obstacles that the attorneys from this organization confront while defending the political prisoners and the pressures imposed on them to convince them to abandon their efforts at defense.

One of the changes at the Managua Judicial Complex is the excessive presence of the police and riot squad when trials of leaders or those denounced are being held. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial

“In the last few weeks, the judges have encouraged complaints to the Supreme Court so that they’ll sanction our attorneys and keep them from providing the legal representation for these cases that we’re undertaking. They also prefer not to have anyone documenting the human rights violations, and the violations to their rights and guarantees that the political prisoners are subjected to,” Carmona specified.

There are complaints of lack of punctuality lodged against the defense lawyers. However, before they get to the courtroom, their briefcases are inspected several times; their hearings are bunched, one right after the other, or at times on the same schedule; or they’re situated in courtrooms far removed from each other. “You have to run around like a crazed rat to arrive at the courtroom,” says Martinez. In addition, the lawyers are ordered to turn off their cellphones so that they can’t photograph the state of the political prisoners.

Harassment and persecution

Attorney Leyla Prado affirms that she has been deeply disappointed by the justice system in Nicaragua. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Niu

In the Managua Courthouse, they disparage Leyla Prado, calling her “the lawyer for the barricaders and the coup plotters”. The judges with whom she used to have close contact now avoid talking to her. And when the political prisoners are presented for the first time before the judge, they try to convince them to choose a public defender.

In Leyla’s case, the harassment is constant. When she gets together with the family members of the political prisoners, they take pictures of her and also keep a watch over her vehicle.

“On the west side of the Judicial Complex, they’ve told me that there are people disguised as sweets or ice cream vendors, but they’re actually functionaries of the National Police, and they take videos of [the prisoners’ family members] and of me too,” she affirms

Montenegro has also been harassed by motorcyclists, who on one occasion followed her, pointing their weapons at her when he was heading home.

In addition, Martinez has endured four incidents where they’ve made attempts on her life. One occurred last December, when she was leading the case of former policewoman Maria Teofila Arauz’ son, who was mysteriously murdered. Maria Teofila had been fired from the police for posting the song “Que vivan los estudiantes” [Long live the students!] On her WhatsApp account. 

The policewoman’s son subsequently died in an unexplained transit accident. During that defense, Martinez had an attempt made on her vehicle as well. Days previously, she had received a threatening message saying: “Your death is going to be the same or worse than that of Teofila’s son.”

Later, in January, Martinez and her assistant were assaulted a few meters from her home. These were the days when she was engaged in defending Dillon Ramos, former member of the pro-Ortega University Student Union, who abandoned this organization to join the protesters.

Lawyer Yonarqui Martinez has suffered a number of attempts on her life. Courtesy photo / Confidencial

“I feel that every time the trial of a [protest] leader approaches, there’s a reprisal. Perhaps so that one will give up the case, or fail to appear in the courtroom,” Martinez speculates. However, she trusts that even if she’s no longer here someday, there’ll always be someone ready to defend the political prisoners. She rejects the notion of abandoning her work out of fear or due to threats.

Montenegro reflects that when he chose this profession, perhaps this test had been foreseen. “I consider that the work we’re doing is important.  There’s a reason, I wasn’t a priest; there’s a reason I didn’t dedicate myself to journalism. I had to be a lawyer, in order to be here at this time, in this work.”

Awards given to the Ortega judges

The lawyers from the CPDH are in charge of defending more than 200 of the dictatorship’s 777 political prisoners. Twenty-two of those cases are now among the hundred prisoners of conscience who were recently transferred from jail to house arrest or family residency.

On May 3, 2014, attorney Ernesto Rodriguez was sworn in as Judge of Managua’s Sixth District Criminal Court. He will now be named Magistrate. Photo from the Judicial Complex website / Confidencial

In contrast to all the obstacles that the lawyers for the political prisoners face, the dictatorship’s obedient judges, such as Rosario Peralta and Ernesto Rodriguez, have been rewarded for condemning the political prisoners. These two judges were recently promoted to magistrates, although they didn’t participate in the merit-based competition to earn the post.

Disputes between the judges and the defense lawyers are common. Frequently, the judges allege that they “don’t know the law”, even when the complete opposite is true. Meanwhile, the defenders sustain that the law and the evidence is manipulated in these judicial processes, with the goal of sustaining the guilty verdicts that the dictator has ordered from his sanctuary in the El Carmen bunker in Managua.

Such allegations surfaced in a video in which Judge Adela Cardoza says to Dr. Julio Montenegro:

“There’s another situation here. I have no problem suspending the hearing, so you can prepare.”

“I don’t need time, because I’ve had sufficient training. This is an issue of knowing the law and that’s what I’m alleging. It’s not for a lack of preparation. Let me remind you that I was your professor at law school,” Montenegro responded.

This discussion was recorded by the official media, who are the only ones permitted to enter the courtrooms. It later went viral on social media.