The Dangerous Job of Defending Ortega’s Political Prisoners

Riot police outside the Managua Court Complex in December 2018. Photo from Confidencial archives

Five of the political prisoners’ defense attorneys have fled the country, following an uptick in threats against them. They share fears of being accused of fabricated crimes.

By Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – “Carlos”, a Nicaraguan attorney, spent two weeks accompanying six journalists who were summoned to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for interrogation. This was in June, within the context of an investigation into alleged money laundering by the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation.

As he attended these clients, his house began to be watched by a motorcyclist in civilian dress; later, a pick-up truck began coming around at night. His telephone rang with calls from unknown numbers – calls he didn’t answer, because he was sure he’d hear threats.

“I was walking out to a neighborhood store, and that motorcyclist followed me,” he says. In order to safeguard his family, he moved to another house, but he felt “it wasn’t enough”. The defense lawyer decided to go into exile.

“Carlos” is one of five Nicaraguan lawyers who recently fled the country. The wave of repression unleashed against members of the opposition reached him too. Like his clients, he faced growing persecution and threats, plus the ever-present risk of jail.

The lawyer, who’s using an assumed name for security reasons, wasn’t in charge of defending any of the latest 26 political prisoners. His role was limited to accompanying the journalists who’d been cited by the Prosecution, and offering them legal counsel.

Lawyers who spoke with Confidencial agreed that risks have multiplied for those who defend political cases in Nicaragua. In 2018 and 2019, there were some attorneys who went into exile after receiving general threats. However, the threats in this last period have been specific, with a more aggressive tone, one of the lawyers confided.

Another of the defenders, who also asked to remain anonymous, affirmed that attorneys face surveillance, harassment, and threats, with the risk of a criminal investigation always hanging over their heads.

“All of these – the persecution, siege and investigations – put the attorney in a vulnerable situation, at a disadvantage, and in danger for exercising their profession,” stated the lawyer, who had been in charge of political cases.

“There are no guarantees of respect for the right of the accused to a defense, nor are there any professional or personal guarantees,” he added.

Police checks

Elton Ortega, former defense attorney for presidential hopefuls Juan Sebastian Chamorro and Arturo Cruz, was “threatened and had to flee the country.” Chamorro’s press team announced his departure at the end of June, via a press release.  Other lawyers have left in silence; the majority of those still in the country will only speak under guarantees of anonymity.

Attorney Boanerge Fornos, coordinator of Accion Penal [Criminal Action] and a defender of political prisoners since 2018, spoke with Confidencial from his place of exile.

Fornos recalled that on June 11, radio announcer William Grigsby – one of the chief FSLN propagandists – read off a list of lawyers that defend political prisoners. He accused these professionals of receiving honorariums for their work from the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (Cosep). Grigsby never offered any proof of his assertions.

At that time, Grigsby also announced “Operation Danto 2021”, the name the regime had given to the new witch-hunt against the opposition. This hunt later materialized into the abduction and illegal detention of six presidential candidates, ten political and civic leaders, two prominent figures from the private sector, two student leaders, two rural leaders, two former workers for the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, a journalist and a personal chauffer.

Some of the lawyers affiliated with Accion Penal have been stopped by the Police, or by agents in civilian dress, or maybe state workers. “It couldn’t be confirmed with certainty who they were,” Fornos clarified. At the same time, there’s a follow-up mechanism in effect for each one of the lawyers who have worked to defend the political prisoners.

Files under hermetic secrecy

In 2018, the defense lawyers for the political prisoners became the only channel for discovering the legal charges pending against the more than 300 Nicaraguans who were tried and found guilty of terrorism and other crimes. The lawyers were also the ones to denounce the human rights violations in these cases.

A Confidencial investigation revealed how the Prosecution, the same body that is now “investigating” the 26 imprisoned opposition leaders, fabricated accusations against the prisoners of conscience who were jailed following the 2018 protests. Those imprisoned through such fabrications include a number of the more than 100 prisoners who still remain in prison. Others were released under the 2019 Amnesty Law. That Amnesty Law was criticized as having been tailored to the needs of the Ortega regime.

Attorneys feel that the current strategy of intimidating them is – in part – aimed at cutting the channel of communications they represent for the political prisoners. “We’re sure this is a strategy to repress the attorneys, who are the ones with direct access to the political prisoners and their files. They want to set up barriers, so that the information about what they’re doing isn’t leaked,” Fornos explained.

To another attorney, who also asked to remain nameless, the reason for intimidating the defense attorneys is so no lawyer will represent these prisoners. In that case, “they fall into the government net, namely its’ public defenders.”

Gonzalo Carrion, from the Nicaragua Nunca Mas [Never again] Human Rights Collective, has been in exile since 2018. He agrees with Fornos’ logic, and accuses the regime of wanting to close the circle around the prisoners, through acts of repression aimed at their lawyers. The circle begins with cases they’ve invented; the National Police then participate in the abductions and raids. Next, the accused prisoners go before a judge who doesn’t question the Prosecution’s accusation. Finally, a public defender assumes the role of lawyer – a lawyer who in turn is subordinated to the Judicial Power, which is under government control.

“They remove any technical defenses, put up all these obstacles, drive [lawyers] into exile, instill fear into anyone who wants to get involved. Why? So that the topic isn’t much talked about. So no one knows the truth about what happened in the [political prisoner’s] hearing,” Carrion told Confidencial.

A very risky job

Mynor Curtis is defending 5 of the 26 opposition leaders who’ve been arrested since the end of last May. He hasn’t seen any of those he represents, nor has he had access to their legal files. Curtis, who has defended other political prisoners since 2018, is part of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center’s legal team. He notes that the information blockade has been particularly intense in the 26 recent cases. The lawyers haven’t been permitted to see the files, even in the Courthouse, and they don’t appear in the information system of the Supreme Court.

“Not having access to the files violates the Constitutional right of the accused for their lawyers to have access. Having no access leaves you defenseless, and nullifies the legal processes,” Curtis denounced.

He has requested that the judges grant his appointment, so as to see his defendants. That’s a right that’s contemplated in Article 34 of the Nicaraguan Constitution. “The accused has a right to communicate freely and privately with his defender.” Despite this, they’ve still not given him permission.

Curtis continues to stand up for those he’s defending, despite the extreme secrecy and the disadvantage he’s at in these cases. He recognizes that he’s acting within a context of threats against his colleagues, where the risks of exercising his profession have increased.

In his specific case, he says he hasn’t received any threats. However, figures in civilian clothing have followed him, especially when he leaves the Courthouse, or police stations within the Police Complex known as El Chipote.

“It’s a form of pressure or intimidation,” he believes.

From his perspective, the current risks the defense lawyers face aren’t specific to the 26 current cases of the political prisoners, but to the general atmosphere. “More pressure is being felt, like the danger had increased,” he stated. 

In addition to representing the five current prisoners of conscience, Curtis has also accompanied 27 journalists who were interrogated by the Public Prosecutor. It’s not a job that just any lawyer is willing to take on, he admits.

A number of his colleagues believe he’s assuming too much risk by accompanying a journalist or any other person summoned by the Prosecution in the context of the investigations against the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation or the NGO Funides.

Other attorneys believe that by appearing at the Prosecutor’s office they’ll immediately be tagged as the opposition. In contrast, Curtis considers this part of the work he must carry out.

He emphasizes that he’s been treated with respect in the Public Prosecutor’s office, and they’ve never tried to intimidate him. He comments, however: “When any attorney leaves [the country] for any motive, that sends a message to the other lawyers. They then say, ‘If that happened to him, it could happen to me. Better I don’t get involved. That’s complicated things a bit for assuring that [the political prisoners] have a defense.”

Lawyers in Nicaragua as defenseless as their clients

“Carlos” believes that – in the country’s current juncture – representing a political prisoner increases your possibility of being threatened, intimidated, persecuted or even having an unfair judicial accusation leveled against you.

In Nicaragua, more than 30,000 lawyers are registered with the Supreme Court, but since 2018, only a small group has been willing to involve themselves in the defense of the political prisoners.

When a lawyer takes on the defense of a person whom the government considers a dissenter, they, too, are stigmatized as a “Coup promoter”. They can be blackballed at work. “You’re criminalized, to hinder you from exercising your profession,” Carlos comments.

Fornos said the risk of criminalization is a real threat for the attorneys, and it may get even worse as the elections draw nearer. “The level of peril and the potential for having something harmful happen to you, is something every lawyer knows personally. We know there’s a high level of risk being faced by our colleagues in the defense,” he states.

One of the fears the defense attorneys share is finding themselves charged with a criminal act. Since there’s no rule of law in Nicaragua, if the Police are asked to fabricate a criminal file on you, “They’re going to put one together. You’re not exempt even as a Legal professional,” maintains attorney “Carlos”, now in exile.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.