Preliminary observations on the IACHR working visit to Nicaragua

May 21, 2018

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Managua – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) culminated today* a working visit to Nicaragua, which took place from May 17 to 21, 2018. The purpose of the visit was to observe the human rights situation in Nicaragua on a preliminary basis, on the ground, in relation to the violent events that have taken place since April 18, 2018, to document these events, and to issue the first specific recommendations to the State. To that end, the IACHR worked in three teams, visiting four cities, where it went to state facilities, health centers, hospitals, the Institute for Forensic Medicine and detention centers.

Since the start of the recent protests in Nicaragua, the IACHR has used its various mechanisms to monitor the human rights situation in the country, including the installation of a Coordination and Timely Response Situation Room.

During its visit, the IACHR pulled together documentary and audiovisual information and heard hundreds of witness statements with testimony of serious human rights violations during a month of protests characterized by the excessive use of force by the security forces of the State and armed third persons. The result was dozens of persons killed and hundreds wounded; illegal and arbitrary detentions; practices of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; censorship and attacks on the press; and other forms of intimidation such as threats, harassment and persecution, all aimed at dissolving the protests and inhibiting citizen participation.

According to the information received by the IACHR, since April 18 at least 76 persons have died and 868 have been wounded, the vast majority in the context of the protests. Of the wounded, five remain in hospitals in critical condition. In addition, 438 persons were detained, including students, human rights defenders, journalists and other members of the civilian population.

The IACHR emphatically condemns the deaths, attacks and arbitrary detentions of students, demonstrators, journalists and other citizens that have occurred in Nicaragua since the beginning of the protests, and which have continued to date. Similarly, the IACHR condemns the deaths of two police officers and assaults against other public servants that have occurred in this context.

The Commission urges the State of Nicaragua to cease repressing social protest immediately. In this regard, the State should urgently adopt the measures needed to guarantee the free and full exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and political participation. The Commission emphatically urges the State to diligently investigate these facts, prosecute and punish those responsible and make reparations to the victims of human rights violations.

According to the information available, as an precursor to the protests, various sources mentioned the fire in the Indio-Maiz natural reserve; and as the catalyst, the fact that on April 16, the government published, in the Official Gazette (Diario Oficial), a social security reform that increased workers’ and employers’ contributions and that also established a 5% reduction in the payments to pensioners. The publication of this reform, together with the breaking up of a demonstration of older persons, sparked widespread protests led by student and youth groups, as well as sectors of workers, peasants, environmentalists, human rights defenders and other citizens. Even though five days later the government withdrew the social security reform, the protests continued and extended due to the discontent of broad sectors of society with the current administration. Subsequently, the failure of the government to acknowledge and condemn the repression that was unleashed also produced greater indignation.

Incidents occurred in the cities of Managua, León, Estelí, Matagalpa, Masaya, Sébaco and Jinotega, among others.

The repressive response also included measures to censor the press, blocking and attacking online media in retaliation for their coverage of the protests, actions that can never be justified and that constitute a form of inadmissible censorship in a democracy. According to the information received, on April 18 broadcasts of the following outlets were suspended: Canal 12Canal de Noticias de Nicaragua (CDNN23), Telenorte and Canal 51, this last one is the channel of the Bishops Conference. The channel 100% Noticias did not broadcast for six days, preventing it from airing programs perceived to be contrary to the interests of the government; and on April 23, the digital edition of the weekly Confidencial was blocked for seven hours. Journalist Angel Gahona was assassinated on April 21 in Bluefields while covering the unrest.

In addition, repression was unleashed in Managua on April 20, led by police forces and groups in vehicles who opened fire on and set ablaze the facilities of the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria. In these events many students fled, but several were trapped on campus and were killed or suffered serious injuries. One of these was the adolescent Alvaro Conrado, 15 years of age, hit by a bullet in the neck and face when bringing water into the university grounds. Witnesses confirmed that the shots were fired by snipers.

Other witnesses note that hundreds of students were attacked in the esplanade of the Cathedral by dozens of antiriot agents who were said to have acted in coordination with irregular violent groups. Students, family members, persons who were collaborating with the protests and journalists were assaulted, thus they decided to seek shelter in the Cathedral. According to dozens of accounts, approximately 600 persons entered the Cathedral, where they remained surrounded all night, and where they were protected by priests from the Catholic Church.

In addition, there is information that in some cases the demonstrators made use of homemade mortars with gunpowder, stones and slingshots. The government indicates that there are groups of vandals and criminals operating in the context of the protests and takeovers of universities, and that they have caused harm to public and private property. In the city of León, the studios of Radio Dario, which was broadcasting the protests, were set ablaze and burned down, and two of the attackers lost their lives when the fuel they were transporting caught fire. Also in León, the Centro Universitario (CUUN) was set ablaze in events in which one person died.

Information was also received on attacks by armed third persons on parishes of the Catholic Church, for example, the parishes of Matiguas and Sebaco.

The IACHR also documented a pattern of mass and arbitrary detentions that occurred especially during the first days of the protests, to the detriment of the students, workers and youth who were in the area where the incidents occurred. According to data provided by the State, 438 persons were forcibly apprehended and taken to police units, such as El Chipote, from which 209 were transferred to the Model Prison (Carcel Modelo) at Tipitapa, after two days of being held in incommunicado detention, while the others were released. In many cases the detainees were subjected to different forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment during their detention. The complaints received make special mention of those victims who allege they were beaten, insulted or received no food and little water. The persons who approached the IACHR also lodged complaints regarding treatment at the La Modelo prison, as their heads were shaved, they were tightly handcuffed, and they were subjected to beatings and asphyxiating holds. In some cases, they reported that they lost all their belongings, including cell phones, which ended up in the hands of state agents.

During three days of detention they were not brought before a judge nor were they allowed any communication with their families.

State security forces and shock groups

According to the testimony of hundreds of persons, the repression was directed by the National Police, its antiriot forces, and para-police groups, which acted with the support of state agents. According to numerous accounts these armed groups were called in to intimidate the demonstrators, keep watch on them and perpetrate violent acts against them. The IACHR also observes that the Army announced that it would not participate in controlling social protest, and that it would protect and secure the institutions and infrastructure vital for the continued functioning of the country.

In this context the IACHR recalls that the State has the obligation to not allow the existence of repressive structures, to investigate the facts in which they have participated, to identify and punish the persons responsible who coordinate their operations from the structures of the State, and to recover the legitimate and proportionate use of force in the context of the rule of law.

Disproportionate use of force

With respect to the State forces, the Commission received dozens of witness statements on the failure of the National Police to act as a neutral party in these events.

The IACHR observes the high level of repression directed by antiriot agents against the student demonstrations at the universities, among them the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua (UNAN), the Universidad Nacional Agraria (UNA), the Universidad Centroamericana and the Universidad Politecnica (UPOLI). For example, in attacks at the UPOLI on May 10 and 16, the IACHR was informed that the National Police used rubber bullets and firearms, whereas at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua, the student leaders reported attacks against students by the antiriot troops and that para-police groups were besieging the campus of that university. During the visit the IACHR directly observed the results of an attack on the students of the UNA.

The IACHR visited different hospitals in Managua, Leon and Matagalpa, as well as the Institute for Forensic Medicine. It also interviewed several voluntary physicians who reported a pattern of injuries in the form of gunshot wounds, most of which impacted persons specifically in the head, eyes, neck and thorax. The IACHR received information on persons with grievous gunshot wounds to the back. 

The organs of the inter-American system have reiterated that the use of force should be in line with the principles of exceptionality, legality, necessity and proportionality. In addition, the obligations to respect, protect and facilitate the rights to assembly and to participate in public demonstrations and protests include preventing actions that may cause persons bodily harm.

The documentation and witness statements that have been gathered also allow for the conclusion that the National Police and the antiriot forces used firearms, pistols with rubber bullets and teargas indiscriminately to break up protests and demonstrations without using protocols to regulate the proportional use of force, even if the police were trained in their use. Several witnesses speak of the use of snipers in places such as the National Stadium and in Matagalpa. These grave events indicate the possibility of extrajudicial executions.

The IACHR considers that potentially lethal force cannot be used merely to maintain or restore public order. Protecting life and physical integrity in the face of imminent threats is the only possible legitimate aim of the use of such force. Nicaragua should immediately implement mechanisms to effectively prohibit the use of lethal force as a means of handling public demonstrations. The Commission has considered that prohibiting those public servants who may enter into contact with demonstrators from bearing arms and lead munitions has proven to be the best measure for preventing lethal violence and deaths in the context of social protests. The IACHR reiterates that firearms and the respective munitions have no place in operations to control social protest and should not be issued to any police officer who might be in contact with demonstrators.

Access to Justice

There is a complaint on the part of victims, family members and civil society with respect to the lack of a timely, independent and non-revictimizing intervention on the part of the Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Publico) to clear up the serious acts of violence that have taken place. On the other hand, some of the investigations that have been undertaken, as in the case of journalist Angel Gahona, in which two direct perpetrators were charged, have been questioned by the victims’ families. Additionally, three mothers came before the IACHR to report that their children had been charged for the murder of a person during a looting, without sufficient evidence, and that they had been the victims of cruel treatment.

The Commission recognizes that it received documentation on the murders and on the persons wounded who received care at hospitals and at the Institute for Forensic Medicine. Nonetheless, it observed cases in which the record was not in line with forensic standards that would make it possible to clarify the acts of violence thoroughly and effectively.

Within the scope of the Attorney General’s Office, the Institute for Forensic Medicine and public hospitals, the IACHR identified as a pattern that the circumstances in which the causes or circumstances of demonstrators’ deaths and injuries were not reliably documented. The IACHR received reports that in more than a dozen cases the public hospitals that received persons killed in these contexts did not perform autopsies, nor were the corpses transferred to the Institute for Forensic Medicine once the death was verified for it to perform the autopsy. According to documents to which the Commission had access, in some cases the family members were required to sign a text which asked that the corpse be handed over to the family without taking those measures, which are essential if justice is to be done. The Commission notes that the State has the obligation to perform the studies and autopsies necessary for a complete investigation into the acts of violence, which, moreover, may entail serious human rights violations.

The Commission is concerned that dozens of victims, family members and representatives expressed profound distrust in the institutions in charge of ensuring judicial accountability for these crimes. Just as there are doubts as to the efficacy of the recently created Truth Commission, given the lack of participation of civil society and the victims’ family members in creating it and designating its members.

Protecting Human Rights Defenders

The IACHR finds that there is an environment of intimidation of students, demonstrators, journalists and citizens who express their rejection of the government and the repressive actions of State agents. In the context of the visit the IACHR received reports of threats, including death threats, by State agents and by third parties against demonstrators, youths, victims’ family members, witnesses and groups that oppose the government; surveillance through police patrols and private vehicles; as well as harassment on social networks. The Commission also received testimony from several witnesses on public servants from different institutions who were forced to participate in pro-government activities under threat of dismissal.

The testimony received leads the Commission to conclude that students, human rights defenders, victims’ family members and witnesses of human rights violations are at serious risk. The special vulnerability of these groups requires the adoption of a comprehensive policy of heightened protection by the State.

The IACHR reiterates that acts of violence and other attacks on human rights defenders not only negatively impact the guarantees owed to every person, but also attack the fundamental role of society. The Commission reminds the State of Nicaragua that it must guarantee, in all circumstances, the ability of human rights defenders to carry out their legitimate activities in defense of human rights, free from any restriction and without fear of suffering reprisals. The State should design and implement a policy of integral protection for human rights defenders that addresses the country’s specific risk factors.

During its working visit the IACHR adopted an initial set of resolutions on precautionary measures to protect the life and integrity of students, as well as of persons who may be at risk of suffering reprisals as a result of the acts of violence against their family members in the context of the repression of social protests, or in their capacity as survivors, witnesses or persons who, like human rights defenders, are engaged in providing assistance or in documenting human rights violations. In those measures the Commission asked the State of Nicaragua to do the following: (a) adopt the measures necessary to safeguard the life and integrity of the beneficiaries – to that end, the State should both ensure that its agents respect the life and integrity of the proposed beneficiaries in keeping with the standards established by international human rights law, and protect their rights in relation to acts that put them at risk attributable to third persons; (b)  coordinate the measures to be adopted with the beneficiaries and their representatives; and (c) report on the actions taken to investigate the alleged acts that led to the adopt of this precautionary measure.

The Commission will request information periodically from the State of Nicaragua to supervise the implementation of those measures. In addition, the Commission will continue analyzing the requests for precautionary measures received during the visit.

Medical Care and Right to Health of Persons Injured and Wounded

The IACHR identified numerous cases in which persons in need of medical care did not go to medical or health care centers out of fear that they would suffer reprisals, instead obtaining assistance at private hospitals and improvised health centers, or from volunteer physicians and medical students, among others. The Nicaraguan Red Cross indicated that they provided hospital care to about 553 persons, 235 of whom needed to be transferred to a medical center. Most of the injuries reported were related to traumatisms, burns, friction or injuries due to explosions. Many persons who were also given assistance were affected by teargas and by bullets of different types and calibers, blunt objects, and beatings.

It was also reported that in the context of the protests the phone number for emergencies was not working properly. The organization noted that communication was interrupted constantly and the work of the volunteers and medical personnel helping the wounded was obstructed. A group of firefighters reported to the IACHR that they were kept from circulating in official ambulances. Nonetheless, the work of the firefighters was allowed on a voluntary basis, though they said that they did not have the protection they required to assist the wounded.

The IACHR also learned that the Nicaraguan Medical Association(Asociacion Medica Nicaragüense) condemned, in a communiqué, the fact that several hospitals in Nicaragua had denied emergency medical care to the persons wounded in the demonstrations that began last April 18. According to complaints lodged during the visits, there were administrative orders in the public hospitals to restrict access to care for the wounded and to obstruct access to information. In particular, reports were received with respect to the Cruz Azul hospital, which is part of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute and the Hospital Roberto Calderon, Hospital Antonio Lenin Fonseca, Hospital Escuela Oscar Danilo Rosales Argüello, and Hospital Aleman Nicaragüense, all of which belong to the Ministry of Health.

Even so, the IACHR found that some public hospitals provided assistance to the wounded, and persons were taken in who were in critical condition. The Commission also received information that in some cases, after undergoing surgery they were hastily discharged; some patients then had to return given their delicate condition. In that regard, the Commission wishes to call attention to the delicate health of Rene Martin Torres Monterio and Jaime Jose Reyes Teyes, inpatients at the Hospital Antonio Lenin Fonseca; Nestor Sotelo Ortega and Edy Javier Hernandez, inpatients at Hospital Aleman-Nicaragüense; David Lizano Altamirano, at the Hospital Manolo Morales Peralta; and Wilner Josue Rivas, at the Santa Fe health clinic in Matagalpa.  

In keeping with the right to health, States have the non-derogable obligation to ensure the right to access health care facilities, goods, and services. When persons cannot uphold this right by themselves, as may be the case of persons who are wounded or sick, States must adopt the measures necessary to facilitate such access, which may include searching for and picking up such persons, as well as providing them immediate care. This includes the obligation of States to adopt affirmative measures to ensure health care, especially in circumstances in which life is in grave danger. In addition, States should not keep health personnel from imparting medical treatment to those persons who need it in the context of these situations. Moreover, States should not keep the health personnel from imparting medical treatment to those who need it in the context of these situations.

Recommendations

In light of the foregoing preliminary observations of the IACHR, in the exercise of its mandate to monitor the human rights situation in the hemisphere, it urges the State of Nicaragua to implement the following 15 initial recommendations:

  1. Immediately cease repressing demonstrators and arbitrarily detaining those who participate in the protests.
  2. Respect and guarantee full enjoyment of the right of the population to protest, to freedom of expression, to peaceful assembly, and to participation.
  3. Create an international investigative mechanism on the acts of violence that occurred, with guarantees of autonomy and independence to ensure the right to truth and to duly identify the persons responsible.
  4. Guarantee the life, integrity, and security of all the persons who are demonstrating and exercising their rights and public liberties, and suffering the consequences of the repressive atmosphere, especially students, children, and adolescents.
  5. Offer effective guarantees to protect the persons who gave testimony to the IACHR or who in some other way participated in its activities in the country; and refrain from engaging in or from allowing others to engage in reprisals against them.
  6. Adopt measures for the diligent investigation, prosecution, and punishment of those responsible for all the acts of violence committed during the protests. In addition, respect the due process guarantees for those persons still detained because of events related to the protests.
  7. Ensure that the security operations with respect to the protests and demonstrations are carried out in line with protocols for action that are in keeping with the international standards on the use of force by law enforcement agents.
  8. Dismantle the para-police groups and adopt measures to prevent the continued operations of groups of armed third persons who attack and harass the civilian population.
  9. Ensure respect for the independence of the media and refrain from the use of prior censorship by any state body, as well as any prior conditioning that may entail censorship of the freedom of expression.   
  10. Urge the state authorities to refrain from making public statements that stigmatize demonstrators, human rights defenders, journalists, and refrain from using state media outlets to conduct public campaigns that may encourage violence against persons because of their opinions. And to effectively protect human rights defenders and journalists at risk.
  11. Systematize the information on persons who received health services at the public and private hospitals as a result of the social protests. The record should be specific indicating the day of admission, cause of the wounds, treatment provided, and, as applicable, causes of death; that information is to be public and broken down at least by age and sex.
  12. The complaints regarding obstruction of access to health care in the hospitals, and obstruction of the humanitarian work of the Red Cross and the firefighters, should be investigated.
  13. Ratify all international human rights instruments still pending ratification, in particular the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons.
  14. Stay open to international scrutiny and, in that regard, facilitate the visit of all those mechanisms for the protection of human rights of the inter-American system and the United Nations system, and of other relevant actors in the international community.
  15. Commit to establishing a joint follow-up mechanism with the IACHR to verify implementation of the recommendations issued in the context of this visit, and of the report on the visit. Schedule with the IACHR a specific calendar for new visits.

Mindful of the painful past that affected Nicaraguan society and the historical commitment not to repeat it, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights trusts in the construction of a peaceful, democratic and constitutional solution to the serious political crisis Nicaragua is undergoing, and it takes note of the installation of the National Dialogue (Mesa Nacional de Dialogo). The essential condition for any solution is the commitment to the truth, guarantees for the investigations and effective justice, as well as proper reparation for all victims and their families.

Finally, the Commission is grateful to the State of Nicaragua for the invitation to conduct this visit, as well as the support of civil society for the visit. The Commission is grateful for all the information provided by the state authorities and the logistical facilities they provided.

The Commission wishes to thank especially the hundreds of victims, witnesses, family members, communities and organizations that gave their testimony, denunciations and detailed information on the facts in a complex environment that required, on their part, acts of courage and reflecting their commitment to justice.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reiterates once again its commitment to fully carry out its mandate to protect victims and their family members, and to observe the human rights situation in the Americas.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

(*) The delegation was led by Commissioner Antonia Urrejola, IACHR Rapporteur for Nicaragua, who was supported by Commissioner Joel Hernandez, Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty; and Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren, Rapporteur on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders. The delegation was also assisted by Paulo Abrão, Executive Secretary; Maria Claudia Pulido, Assistant Executive Secretary for Monitoring, Promotion and Technical Cooperation on Human Rights; the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza, and the Special Rapporteur for Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, Soledad Garcia Muñoz, and by the specialists of the Executive Secretary.

No. 113/18