UN report concludes crimes against humanity committed in Nicaragua

Exiled Nicaraguans protest through the main streets of San José against the presidential elections in their country, Nicaragua, in San José, Costa Rica, 7 November 2021. (Keystone/EPA/Jeffrey Arguedas)

A group of experts investigating human rights abuses in Nicaragua warned of crimes against humanity as well as humanitarian impacts for the region.

A month after Nicaragua stripped over 300 government opponents of their nationality, a group established last March by the Human Rights Council to investigate abuses in the country in recent years issued a damning report on Thursday.

The Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua (GHREN) presented its investigation to reporters at United Nations headquarters in Geneva, ahead of its formal presentation before the council on 6 March.

“We can conclude that widespread and systematic human rights violations amount to crimes against humanity and are motivated by political reasons,” Jan Simon, GHREN’s chair, told journalists in Geneva. “Practice patterns” of human rights violations such as murder, arbitrary detention, torture, including sexual violence and persecution, he said, had been put in place by President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice-president Rosario Murillo.

“The state apparatus in its entirety has been used as a weapon of persecution against the Nicaraguan population, who are living in fear and in terror of the actions that the government may take against them,” Simon added.

The group was mandated to investigate serious human rights violations in the country since April 2018, when anti-government protests were followed by a government crackdown that led to the death of hundreds of protesters and forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country.

The team investigated the deaths of 40 people during the national protests, which lasted until September of that year, concluding that extrajudicial executions had been committed in all the cases by authorities and groups sympathetic to the regime, including public employees, gang members and former military officials. The government has previously denied the arbitrary use of force by police forces and pro-government groups.

Families of people killed in the protests were, according to the report, required to sign declarations waving their rights to justice in exchange for recovering the bodies of relatives. People arrested were subjected to torture, including beatings, sexual violence, waterboarding, stress positions and other inhuman treatments, sometimes in the presence of high-ranking police officials.

“Authorities have used arbitrary detention as a tool to silence critics,” Simon said. “All these actions are possible because the state apparatus in its entirety has been used as a weapon of persecution against the population.”

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On 9 February, Ortega’s government freed 222 political prisoners and expelled them to the United States while stripping them of their nationality. A few days later, it revoked the nationality of an additional 94 exiled critics.

The rights investigators, unable to enter Nicaragua after the government told the former council president Federico Villegas and UN secretary general António Guterres that “the group doesn’t exist”, interviewed nearly 300 victims, family members, witnesses, former and current officials and civil society group members in neighbouring countries, the rights expert said. The group also consulted available documents, legislation and policies.

Simon said one of the group’s main concerns while conducting the interviews was the risk of retaliation against witnesses and their families in Nicaragua. As a result, much of the information in the report had to be made anonymous, he told Geneva Solutions.

Regional implications

Ángela María Buitrago, a member of the expert group, warned of the implications of the situation beyond the country’s borders. “An issue of great concern to us is the humanitarian crisis that emerges in the region that has led to a major crossing of borders, putting Nicaraguans at risk and weakening people in other countries,” she said.

At least 200,000 Nicaraguans have applied for refugee status in neighbouring Costa Rica since 2018, and now represent three per cent of that country’s population.

Buitrago, a Colombian jurist, said that in response to abuses in Nicaragua that its justice system has failed to investigate, other countries should implement universal jurisdiction for Nicaragua’s actions to be investigated and tried elsewhere. She said that the group’s findings also pointed to abuse victims holding dual citizenship. “There are French citizens, US citizens and people of other nationalities, where these states could exercise their own jurisdiction.”

The group also recommended that the international community “extend sanctions to institutions and individuals” who had committed violations and crimes according to international law. Simon said that in negotiations over development, cooperation or investment projects in the country, governments and international organisations should include human rights safeguards.

Since the beginning of its investigations, the GHREN addressed a dozen letters as well as the report to the government in Managua, but has received no response.

Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, is scheduled to give an oral update on the situation in Nicaragua on Friday 3 March.