Ortega’s Legislators Approve Life Sentences

Nicaragua’s National Assembly. Archived photo

Nicaragua’s congress opens the door to harsher penalties for those who commit “hate crimes”. Their latest vote was to approve the “life imprisonment law.”

By Ivette Munguia (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Nicaragua’s National Assembly gave initial legislative approval to a constitutional reform establishing the penalty of life imprisonment. This same law must be ratified when the next legislative year begins, in January 2021. Only then will it enter into effect.

The so-called “life imprisonment law” is actually an amendment to Article 37 of the Nicaraguan Constitution. It’s the last in a trio of punitive laws that the Ortega regime has pushed through Congress. All three have been approved in the last two months.

The reform adds a new paragraph to Article 37 of the Constitution. This article previously established a maximum prison sentence of thirty years. Now, the following will be added: “In exceptional cases, a sentence of perpetual imprisonment will be imposed on the person found guilty of serious crimes, when combined with cruel, degrading, humiliating and inhumane hate, and whose impact causes shock, rejection, indignation, revulsion in the national community.”

Steamroller approval

These constitutional changes were backed by the Sandinista “steamroller”, the loyal party majority in the National Assembly. These deputies argued that the establishment of life sentences fulfilled the demand of three million Nicaraguans, who signed petitions. These same petitions were filled out using pressure tactics and blackmail, according to complaints from diverse sources.

The movement for a constitutional reform was launched by the country’s executive branch last September 15th. In a speech that day, Daniel Ortega announced to the nation the changes he wanted to see in Nicaragua’s laws.

Maria Auxiliadora Martinez, president of the Justice and Legal Affairs Commission, argued that the constitutional reform was widely consulted. She said it was discussed with Nicaragua’s Supreme Court magistrates, the National Police and the Public Prosecutor’s office. It was also presented to the National Penitentiary System and the Attorney General’s office. 

However, all of these institutions are controlled by the party that Ortega heads.  According to Martinez, these institutions concluded that the establishment of life imprisonment “doesn’t contradict the Constitution”. It also doesn’t clash with “the international organs the Nicaraguan State is part of.”

A deterrent?

“Life imprisonment is a legal tool for protection, prevention and safeguarding life,” declared Sandinista deputy Carlos Emilio Lopez. In his judgement, “prison for perpetuity is a giant protective shield” for women. It fulfills “a preventive function”, because it sends a persuasive message to the aggressors.

The Sandinista legislators insist that the penalty of life in prison will be applied only “exceptionally”. They claim it will also be “revisable” once the prisoner is reeducated.  Further, they argue that life in prison is a measure currently in force in 180 countries around the world. In the end, the partial reform to the Constitution was approved as a general and specific measure. It received 70 votes in favor, 15 against, and 3 abstentions.

The constitutional reform must now be approved in a second legislative session and put into effect. Once that happens, the Sandinista legislators will continue the effort with a reform to the Penal Code.

A law to punish the opposition?

The law for life imprisonment is an initiative that came down from the Presidency. According to them, it’s to punish those who commit hate crimes in the country. The regime has argued the case by pointing to those who’ve murdered children. This objective seems to contradict reports from feminist collectives, who have documented the government’s lack of interest in punishing femicides.

Organizations, attorneys and opposition leaders allege that the law actually has a different intention. They believe the government really wants to use it as punishment for those who dare express opposition. They feel it will be a tool to smooth the road to Daniel Ortega’s continuance in power.  It joins the Special Cybercrimes Law approved on October 27th, and the Law to Regulate Foreign Agents passed October 15th. The three laws are viewed as a package, all aimed at further repression.

In view of this trio of punitive laws, on October 7th the European Parliament called for heavier sanctions. Specifically, it approved a request to broaden the current sanctions against functionaries of the Ortega regime. These would include the president and his wife. The European Parliament asked the Nicaraguan government not to approve these laws. They warned that Parliament could initiate motions to suspend Nicaragua from the Association Accords between Central America and the EU.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.