Nicaragua: “Sanctions Are the Only Language that Ortega and Murillo Understand”

Director of Human Rights Watch calls on the international community to do more

Riot police cordon in front of several protestors after a press conference on June 19th in Managua in demand for the release of the more than 80 remaining political prisoners.  Photo: EFE

Jose Miguel Vivanco: Without international sanctions, “there is zero probability of improvements in human rights and civil liberties”


By Carlos F. Chamorro  (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – On Wednesday June 19, just hours after Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report in Washington on torture and the repression of the right to protest in Nicaragua, police repressed and detained protesters in the cities of Managua and Masaya.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s director for the Americas, is demanding that the United States, Canada and democratic governments in Latin America “double-down on sanctions” against the Ortega government for two reasons. One because this police state is relentlessly trying to stop civil protests and two, because the Ortega-Murillo regime is trying to mislead national and international opinion regarding compliance with agreements in the dialogue.

The HRW report proposes applying individual sanctions against the National Police chain-of-command: Supreme Chief, President Daniel Ortega; Aminta Granera (former National Police Chief); General Francisco Díaz, the current National Police Chief; General Ramon Avellan, National Police Deputy Chief; General Jaime Vanegas, National Police Inspector General; General Luis Pérez Olivas, Chief of El Chipote prison; and General Justo Pastor Urbina, Chief of the Department of Special Operations (DOEP).

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch Director of the Americas division. Foto: Flickr | Johanna Zarate P.

Vivanco assures that authoritarian regimes do care about sanctions “that freeze assets.” He emphasized that “this is the only language they understand.”

“If the international community ends the sanctions or becomes confused by the recent liberation of prisoners, who should never have been in prison to begin with, there is zero probability of improvements in human rights and civil liberties, much less a transition to a democracy,” Vivanco warned.

During this extensive interview with the program Esta Noche, Vivanco analyzed the main findings in this 98-page report entitled “Crackdown in Nicaragua: Torture, Ill-Treatment, and the Prosecutions of Protesters and Opponents.”

Esta Noche: This report analyzes the pattern of repressive methods used. It is based on over 70 interviews and an exhaustive study of 13 political prisoners who were tortured, as well as interviews with some of the doctors who treated them. What is this report’s main conclusion regarding the situation in Nicaragua?

Jose Miguel Vivanco: This study was done in Nicaragua. Our researchers traveled all over the country and gathered direct testimony from victims, family members, doctors and experts from civil society. Based on this information and testimonies, we have reached the conclusion that the Ortega-Murillo regime is directly responsible for massive and very serious violations of fundamental rights. These violations have been committed by police officers and heavily-armed thugs who have been given license to shoot and kill.

The citizens who have survived the killings or those who were gravely wounded have been arbitrarily arrested by the regime. They have not been able to exercise their basic right to defend themselves before an independent court. Many of them have been subjected to perverse and brutal forms of torture.

The tortures we have been able to document are examples of extreme cruelty. They include rape, the removal of prisoner’s fingernails, electric shock, brutal beatings, and waterboarding to the point of almost killing the prisoners…these are really practices that characterized the dictatorships of the 1970s that governed in the southern cone of Latin America. These are Pinochet’s practices.

Is there any proof of these incidents of torture?

JMV: Yes, there is. The evidence is all in the report. We were able to gather testimony from doctors, and not just the victims and witnesses who helped with the elaboration of this report. In some cases we have had to protect the identity of the doctors and in other cases, the doctors had to leave the country. Several doctors told us–and we received the same information from different parts of the country–that an order came from the highest levels of the regime prohibiting doctors in the public hospitals, particularly, but also in private hospitals, from treating the victims of repression. This is very unusual and demonstrates the level of cruelty that the regime is prepared to employ.

The regime claims that it was reacting against a coup attempt and that protesters also committed abuses against the police and government supporters. What does the report state about these allegations?

JMV: We have not been able to find any credible, rational or serious evidence that demonstrates that there was any coup attempt against the state. There is no circumstance which could justify the types of atrocities that Ortega and Murillo are responsible for. The same goes for government party leaders, and in particular, for the maximum authorities of the Nicaraguan police. There is no way for the State to justify committing these types of atrocities to protect itself from an imminent coup, not before any serious, impartial international body. There is no evidence that this [coup attempt] has occurred in Nicaragua.

The regime’s arguments in its defense are propagandistic. Typical of a tyranny. There is no doubt that there were also abuses committed against the police. We have serious information about the death of police during some of the confrontations.

Urgent Call for International Sanctions

Your organization proposes calling on the international community to apply sanctions, primarily individual sanctions against those responsible for the repression. Why? Is there any evidence that individual sanctions like those applied in Nicaragua actually produce the desired results of justice, truth and an end to repression?

JMV: A totalitarian regime, like the one in Nicaragua today, is usually very sensitive to targeted sanctions to freeze their assets. Because this is about punishing corrupt actors who have been stealing from the national treasury. And those governing Nicaragua have been doing this for many years, without answering to anyone, in a system of government with a total concentration of power, where there is no independent oversight system of public funds. When the United States, Canada, the European Union and some of the most important democracies in the region freeze the assets of the leaders of this regime, their family members and cronies, and at the same time cancel their visas, we know that this worries them.

We believe it is time to redouble these efforts and double the sanctions. This is why we are presenting a list headed by Daniel Ortega as the Supreme Chief of Police, an entity that has viciously used grotesque cruelty against unarmed civilians, people who are vulnerable all over Nicaragua. This is the police force that Daniel Ortega leads. And that is why he, as well as the other police authorities, should be the target of these sanctions. These sanctions also need to be applied by the European Union and the democracies of Latin America.

The government of the United States has already applied sanctions to Daniel Ortega’s wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, to one of his sons, Laureano Ortega, and also to the current chief of police, the FSLN’s treasurer and fund manager for Albanisa, Francisco Lopez. HRW is now proposing sanctions against President Ortega, directly. What are the consequences of a state sanctioning Ortega, when that state still has diplomatic relations with Nicaragua?

JMV: Legally, it is possible for a democratic and sovereign state to do this when the reasons involve corruption and the violation of fundamental rights. It is acceptable to include someone like Daniel Ortega on this list. In our opinion, this is the only language that Ortega and Murillo understand. It is time to double-down on the pressure. If the international community stops or gets distracted or gets confused by the recent liberation of prisoners–who should never have been in prison to begin with–and allows itself to be manipulated by the regime’s propaganda, there is zero probability of an improvement in human rights and civil liberties, much less a transition to democracy.

Any negotiations towards this transition should include strong and unequivocal international sanctions.

How do you view what happened yesterday in Managua when the deadline that Ortega accepted to free all political prisoners, passed? The government said that it already complied with the deadline because it freed some prisoners on the list agreed upon by the OAS, the Vatican and the Civic Alliance. But the Civic Alliance said that Ortega has not complied because there are still 86 political prisoners being held and the country is still a police state. What can we expect from the international community?

JMV: We should expect much more from the international community. There are legal responsibilities that the international community should exercise at both multilateral and bilateral levels. In this sense the OAS has a role to play and there is a General Assembly in Medellín during which we hope Nicaragua is on the agenda, and not just on the agenda but that the Democratic Charter is invoked against Nicaragua with direct sanctions.

You asked what can be expected from the government during negotiations. I’d say very little. This is a regime that cheats, that manipulates national and international opinion. It’s also a regime that repressed people who had the courage to challenge it in the streets and in churches. Many of those recently liberated are still facing fraudulent legal proceedings. Many of those freed are still under house arrest.

A Proposal to Stop Funding the Police

There are two other proposals in the Human Rights Watch report. One is a proposal that the European Union and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration end their financial relationship with the police. The other proposal is to invoke the United Nations Convention Against Torture, of which Nicaragua is a signatory. Given the crimes committed, could this mean opening investigations and beginning legal proceedings?

JMV: In international law there are principles and solid precedents that permit exercising universal jurisdiction if some of those responsible for the repression in Nicaragua are under the jurisdiction of a state that respects and has signed international human rights treaties. This channel exists and we are calling on all members of the European Union, the OAS, the United States and Canada to take advantage of any opportunity to open criminal proceedings on the atrocities that have been committed. Some of the regime’s authorities cited hold direct responsibility. This is an important official channel.

As regards financing for the police, through this investigation we have discovered that most of the police budget comes from foreign aid. Last year the European Union donated $1,200,000 to the police. We have been unable to find out if the European Union is going to continue providing funding to the police. We’ve talked to authorities at the highest levels and we cannot understand the answer. We do not understand their position. The European Union’s answers are ambiguous. We hope that the public debate engendered by this report forces the bureaucrats of the European Union to make a clear and firm decision to suspend any and all financing to an entity that has become infamous for its repressive conduct.