The story of Attorney Maria Oviedo who went from being a victim of police mistreatment to an accused perpetrator.
Lawyers for both current and released political prisoners have been targets of police harassment. Some now face biased legal processes, harassment, threats and attempts on their lives.
By Ivette Munguia (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – Lawyers of the current and released political prisoners in Nicaragua have now become targets of repression in the face of the de facto State of Siege imposed by the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
The most recent episode occurred on Friday, July 26 when attorney Maria Oviedo appeared in the Masaya police station for a routine matter, together with her client, released political prisoner Cristian Fajardo. Instead of processing her client’s complaint, she was violently detained by police officials. She then spent 52 hours in jail.
“From the moment that we arrived at the police station, we were treated grotesquely.
The attitude the police assumed towards us could practically be termed obscene, even though we’ve already become resigned to the mistreatment the defenders of human rights and the released prisoners receive in the police stations,” noted Oviedo.
The lawyer asked Fajardo to leave in order to avoid a larger conflict. When she returned to pick up the documents she had requested be admitted, a police officer shoved her and others dragged her through a hallway within the police station.
“He said: ‘Get out or I’ll throw you out.’ I repeated that I needed him to give me my documents, and that I wasn’t leaving until he gave them to me. At that moment, the police official gave me a shove. I told him to please respect me, and after that you can see in the video what happened,” the lawyer recounted.
Oviedo has been practicing law for 13 years. Before the April rebellion, she had been a prosecutor for the District Attorney’s office, but she resigned due to the human rights violations being committed against the political prisoners that she now defends.
The human rights lawyer remained in jail for 52 hours. She declares that that experience made it clear that “the status of attorney means nothing to them.”
“They repeated that to me a number of times. When the police official attacked me, I felt disrespected and humiliated. Everything that happened later was totally degrading. I hadn’t ever been in a situation like that before,” she stated.
Oviedo recalls that one of the most difficult situations that she faced was being held incommunicado. “Despite the unsanitary conditions and other hardships in the Masaya cells, having no access to food, to hygiene products, being held with no communication was what caused me the greatest desperation throughout the ordeal,” she said.
Under permanent siege
The lawyers and other human rights defenders in Nicaragua know that they face a hostile situation. As Oviedo affirms, they’ve assimilated this fact to a certain extent. However, Oviedo and her colleagues who defend the released political prisoners have also become targets of Ortega’s repressive legal system.
In the last few months, those defending the political prisoners have become victims of biased legal processes, harassment, threats, even attempts on their lives. Even though they have a broad knowledge of Nicaraguan law, this hasn’t helped them much.
On one occasion, a man on a motorcycle charged after Dr. Julio Montenegro, who has defended hundreds of released political prisoners, as he was leaving the Managua Courthouse. Montenegro recalls that he left the courthouse that day at 6:30 pm. Subsequently, “two people approached me in an unusual way to consult legal questions.” Later, both people left, and he attempted to cross the street. “At that moment, a motorcycle charged out and nearly struck me”.
The lawyer has also receives threats over social media. Every time he posts something, among the comments he finds phrases like: “You’re making history, but every story has an ending.” Messages that are “very elegant, but which have a different connotation,” he reflected.
Montenegro was recently part of the People’s Defense Team, a group of lawyers whose objective was to help the victims of repression in Nicaragua. However, each time someone comes to enter a denunciation, the National Police arrive and surround their office. Their intention is to “intimidate the population so that no one files a complaint,” the lawyer highlighted.
Both Oviedo and Montenegro are former prosecutors. Their names are not well regarded in the tribunals, and the Ortega-appointed judges have ignored the evidence that they present during the trials.
Montenegro recalls a judge telling him: “What are you so upset about? Take it easy, calm down,” insinuating that he should step away from his profession. Another judge declared that Montenegro worked “defending criminals”, in an effort to disparage his merits as a professional. Such a statement is also a complete contradiction of the right of the accused to be presumed innocent.
After being attacked, Oviedo now faces a legal proceeding against her. Her former colleagues in the Attorney General’s office accuse her of the crime of obstructing their procedures. Although the lawyer has been granted protective status by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), this was not taken into account during the preliminary hearing. Further, when her lawyer argued that the police official had disrespected Oviedo, the judge responded: “I can’t pronounce on this, because there’s no evidence.”
In Oviedo’s judgement, the accusation “has no legal basis, it’s an event outside the law.” Nonetheless, it was ruled admissible by the judicial authority. The judge established additional measures, forbidding her to leave the country and obligating her to report once a month to the Managua Courthouse.
In addition, the official that attacked Oviedo, Lieutenant Oscar Danilo Lopez, head of the Department of Arms, Explosives, and Ammunitions in Masaya, has asked the Supreme Court to suspend her attorney’s license.
The lawyer regretted the accusation presented by her former colleagues. She stated: “it’s an injustice, because I’ve gone from being a victim to being called a perpetrator… At one point, someone told me that former colleagues in the D.A.s office had said I’d be the next political prisoner, but I didn’t believe that such a thing would become reality.”
Yonarqui Martinez, also a lawyer for the former political prisoners, faced a similar judicial accusation, although it was later thrown out. On that occasion, the police arrested Martinez and held her vehicle in the Managua municipal storage.
Martinez told the media that she was driving her car when two traffic policemen stopped her. “I pulled over, they asked for my documents, and later they made some calls. Before I knew it, the tow truck was there. They wouldn’t even let me out of the car.” The lawyer asked the officials for an explanation. “I asked them to let me get my things out, and then they could take the vehicle, but when I looked the tow truck was already there. The official only told me that I was being transferred, with no other explanation.”
Four days later, Martinez recovered the vehicle, but she had to pay a fine, plus pay for the towing and for the time that the car remained in the city storage.
Despite the state of defenselessness in which the lawyers find themselves, they remain in charge of the defense of 120 political prisoners and hundreds of released prisoners.
Dr. Montenegro maintains that he feels gratified to be defending the political prisoners, because “it’s the right thing to do.” He holds the strong conviction that in this way he’s “contributing to the process of justice,” even when “it seems that [the judicial authorities] have forgotten” that they have an obligation to fulfill the legal norms.
Meanwhile, Attorney Oviedo feels that her work makes a difference, because “being a human rights defender means becoming aware of what’s right and what’s wrong and fighting for that.” For her, it’s not enough to know the law, “We can’t limit ourselves to the legal aspect of the trials; the human aspect is also basic, because sometimes what makes the difference is just fair treatment,” she emphasized.