Eva Carroll interviews activist FÁTIMA HERNÁNDEZ
MANAGUA, Oct. 25 (IPS) — Fátima Hernández, a young Nicaraguan rape victim who has become a symbol in her country in her fight for justice, is now working to help women in a similar situation, and preparing to take her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
“We women are demanding and shouting for the government to listen, we want to be heard,” Hernández said in an interview with IPS at her office in Managua.
On the night of Jul. 25, 2009, Hernández, who is now 24, was raped and beaten by Farinton Reyes, one of her co-workers in Nicaragua’s department of immigration.
She believes that Reyes, whose family is well connected in government circles, spiked her drink before the assault.
In a country where sexual violence is at epidemic levels and often goes unreported and unpunished, Hernández was determined that her attacker be brought to justice.
To bring attention to her plight, she held a 25-day hunger strike as well as vigils outside the Supreme Court and public offices, and went to the media and human rights groups.
She finally saw Reyes sentenced to eight years in prison, in June 2010. But in July 2011, the sentence was reduced to four years by a Supreme Court ruling that downgraded the crime to a “fit of passion under the influence of alcohol” in which Hernández was said to have been “permissive”.
The young activist, who hopes to complete her law degree, established an organisation last year, the Association of Women for Critical Thinking (Asociación de Mujeres Forjadoras “El Pensamiento”) to support other women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence.
Q: What was your experience of reporting your attack to the police, and of the Nicaraguan justice system?
A: The police were negligent in their handling of my case. I felt that they were not impartial, that they took the side of my attacker. They lost my statement, and it took them 43 days to send my clothes to the laboratory for testing. On the day that I reported the attack, I asked the official to conduct a blood test to see what kind of drug had been put in my drink, but he refused.
Furthermore, the public prosecutor’s office was reluctant to charge my attacker, and said that there was not enough evidence, even though a physical exam showed that I had been raped and beaten.
The lawyer who supported me, José Manuel Urbina, took on my case for free. Finally, after many attempts, he brought my case to an impartial judge. All the others had said that there was not sufficient evidence to press charges. The attacker was sentenced to eight years, but his family appealed the sentence and it was reduced to six, and then to four years by the Supreme Court.
Q: The Supreme Court’s decision to reduce your attacker’s sentence to four years is final, and cannot be appealed in a national court. What is your next step?
A: I realise that there is nothing more I can do here in Nicaragua, so I’m working with the (non-governmental) Permanent Human Rights Commission to see if I can pursue the case internationally. I know that it will be a long process, but I have waited two years already. I can wait longer to have my case heard in a place where it will be understood and acknowledged that I have been completely denied justice.
Q: What is the situation like for human rights campaigners in Nicaragua?
A: It is dangerous. Before my attacker went on trial, I went to my lawyer’s radio station to denounce him publicly. When I got off the bus at the station, a man grabbed me around my neck and showed me a photograph taken of me. He said this was a warning and that if I continued my fight, it would happen again.
After the trial, while leaving the courthouse, my attacker’s family grabbed me and his older brother hit me in the face.
After the sentence was passed, my family and lawyer were attacked again and my lawyer and I have received death threats over the phone. On Oct. 5, my lawyer’s brother, Pablo José Urbina, was murdered as a warning to his brother for his work (as a human rights lawyer). I fear for my life, and that of my lawyer.
Q: How did your family and community react to your fight for justice?
A: Parts of my community rejected me. I couldn’t go to the market with my mother, they would point and say, “There’s the liar.” Only rarely did women say, “I’m with you, I’m a woman and I understand how you feel.” Some supported me, said that they were there for me in my fight, that I wasn’t alone. I was surprised at how many men supported me.
My family suffered a lot during the process as I put myself at risk by going on hunger strike in the pursuit of justice.
At the start I felt alone, apart from the support of my family and my lawyer, and that is why I started this Association. Every day I check the news and when I see there has been an attack, I look to see how I can help the victim. I go there and tell her, “I’m with you, the Association is with you, and you’re not alone.”
Q: What is your message to women and girls in Nicaragua?
A: Under the current (left-wing Sandinista) government we are experiencing an epidemic of violence against women and girls. It is really worrying. The government does nothing – it pretends not to hear, it doesn’t want to see what’s going on.
We women are demanding and shouting for the government to listen, we want to be heard. We are in despair knowing that it discriminates against us and completely ignores the rights of women and girls.
Women and girls must know that it is important to break the silence, not to remain quiet. Victims must not be alone. With the power of God, we will have the strength to fight this.