Nicaragua has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo Zambrana. Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front party exercises total control over the country’s executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. President Ortega awarded himself a fourth consecutive term in November elections after arbitrarily jailing nearly 40 opposition figures, barring all credible opposition political parties from participating, blocking legitimate international observation efforts, and committing widespread electoral fraud. Independent observer groups and international organizations characterized the electoral process as seriously flawed, lacking credibility, and defined by historically low voter turnout. The 2021 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and eliminated restrictions on re-election of executive branch officials and mayors. Observers noted serious flaws in municipal, regional, and national elections since 2008. Civil society groups, international electoral experts, business leaders, and religious leaders identified persistent flaws in the 2019 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections and noted the need for comprehensive electoral reform.
The Nicaraguan National Police is responsible for internal security. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Both report directly to the president, pursuant to changes in the police and army code in 2014. Parapolice, which are nonuniformed, armed, and masked units with tactical training and organization, act in coordination with government security forces, under the direct control of the government, and report directly to the national police. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and parapolice security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by prison guards and parapolice; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detentions; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located in another country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including threats of violence, unjustified arrests, censorship, criminal libel suits against journalists; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, and operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; severe restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement within the country and the right to leave the country; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious corruption; serious government restrictions on and harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons; and the worst forms of child labor.
The government did not take steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, including those responsible for at least 355 killings and hundreds of disappearances during the prodemocracy uprising of April 2018. The government did not address instances of widespread corruption. President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.
Police, parapolice, and individuals linked to the Ortega regime carried out a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and violence toward perceived enemies of the regime, such as former political prisoners and their families, farmworker activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, human rights defenders, private-sector leaders, and Catholic clergy.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Human rights organizations and independent media alleged some killings were politically motivated, an allegation difficult to confirm because the government refused to conduct official inquiries.
Reports of killings were common in the north-central regions and the North Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACN). Human rights groups said these killings illustrated a continuation of a campaign of terror in the north-central and RACN regions, perpetrated by parapolice groups to stamp out political opposition to the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party. On March 29, unknown assailants shot Ernesto Jarquin five times in the chest in the north-central town of Mulukuku. Imprisoned in 2018 for participating in prodemocracy protests in Mulukuku, Jarquin was released with other political prisoners under a 2019 amnesty law. The Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) and official media reported Jarquin’s killing by focusing on the government’s previous allegations of Jarquin’s involvement in homicide, illegal weapons possession, collusion to commit crimes, and kidnapping in association with his participation in 2018 prodemocracy protests. As of October no arrests had been made in the case.
On August 23, land invaders linked to the ruling FSLN party killed at least 13 indigenous persons. The attack happened near Musawas, in the Sauni As territory, in a protected area of the Bosawas biosphere reserve. The attack included rape and dismemberment. On September 8, police stated the attack stemmed from a quarrel over an artisanal gold mining site and that police had identified 14 assailants and captured three. Witnesses and indigenous rights defenders disputed the findings and said police had arrested individuals other than those identified as perpetrators by the community and had failed to address the root causes that lead to such attacks.
There was no indication the government investigated crimes committed by police and parapolice groups related to the 2018 prodemocracy uprising. In April 2018 President Ortega and Vice President Murillo ordered police and parapolice forces to suppress violence peaceful protests that began over discontent with a government decision to reduce social security benefits. By late November 2018, the ensuing conflict had left at least 355 persons dead; more than 2,000 injured; thousands forced into hiding; hundreds illegally detained and tortured; and as of September, more than 130,000 in exile in neighboring countries. Beginning in August 2018, the Ortega government instituted a policy of “exile, jail, or death” for anyone perceived as opposition, amended terrorism laws to include prodemocracy activities, and used the justice system to prosecute civil society actors as terrorists, assassins, and coup mongers. Police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office detained, brought to trial, and imprisoned many members of the prodemocracy opposition. Human rights organizations documented that the investigations and prosecutions did not conform to the rule of law. The government continued to make no effort to investigate several 2017 incidents of extrajudicial killings and torture in both the North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions. The army continued to deny its involvement in cases perceived by human rights organizations as politically motivated extrajudicial killings.
Starting on May 28, police detained at least 40 members of the opposition and civil society leaders using a February change in the criminal procedural code that allows for a detention period of up to 90 days during the public prosecutor’s initial investigation, before presenting charges. While technically under custody of police or prison authorities, the 40 detained leaders did not have access to legal counsel or family visitations. Authorities did not reveal the location of these detainees, and judicial authorities rejected habeas corpus writs in their favor. National and international human rights organizations deemed the detention of these political prisoners effectively a form of forced disappearance. After authorities held them incommunicado for months, at least 25 of these political prisoners were formally charged in August, at which time they were allowed limited access to legal counsel and three 30-minute family visits.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the law prohibits such practices, government officials intentionally carried out acts that resulted in severe physical or mental suffering for the purposes of securing information, inflicting punishment, and psychologically deterring other citizens from reporting on the government’s actions or participating in civic actions against the government. Members of civil society and student leaders involved in the protests that began in April 2018 were more likely than members of other groups to be subjected to such treatment.
On July 6, authorities detained prodemocracy student leader Lesther Aleman Alfaro without a warrant. The Public Prosecutor’s Office later announced it had accused Aleman of treason under the Law for the Defense of the Rights of the People to Independent Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace, or Law 1055, passed in December 2020. Prison authorities held Aleman incommunicado in solitary confinement at the El Chipote detention center, with no access to legal counsel or family visits, no access to sunlight, and with lights on 24 hours a day in his cell. He endured multiple interrogations a day. After 58 days in detention, he was briefly allowed to see a family member and a lawyer. Following Aleman’s arraignment, his lawyer said he appeared severely underweight and under deep psychological duress. Human rights groups characterized Aleman’s treatment by prison authorities as psychological torture. Other political prisoners suffered similar conditions while in detention, including several who had protective measures in place from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.
Human rights organizations reported female prisoners were regularly subjected to strip searches, degrading treatment, and rape threats while in custody of parapolice forces, prison officials, and police. Prison officials forced female prisoners to squat naked and beat them on their genitals to dislodge any supposedly hidden items.
Impunity persisted among police and parapolice forces in reported cases of torture, mistreatment, or other abuses. The NNP’s Office of Internal Affairs is charged with investigating police suspected of committing a crime. The Office of the Military Prosecutor investigates crimes committed by the army, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Military Auditor General. With complete control over the police, prison system, and judiciary branch, however, the FSLN governing apparatus made no effort to investigate allegations that regime opponents were tortured or otherwise abused.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners remained serious problems in prison facilities.
Physical Conditions: Prison conditions continued to deteriorate due to antiquated infrastructure and increasing inmate populations. Despite new temporary holding cells in the Directorate of Judicial Assistance, the rest of the prison system was in poor condition. The government reported overcrowding in five of the seven prisons for men, holding 15,333 prisoners with capacity for 12,600, or 22 percent over capacity in 2020. The government did not provide updated figures for the year. More than 1,000 of these inmates were held in the prison known as La Modelo. Human rights organizations continued to be concerned about prison overcrowding. Due to overcrowding, pretrial detainees often shared cells with convicted prisoners, and juveniles shared cells with adults.
Many prisoners suffered mistreatment from prison officials and other inmates. Human rights organizations confirmed that at least 16 men detained in the context of the 2018 protests were subjected to solitary confinement in maximum-security cells of La Modelo Prison, in some cases for months at a time. Political prisoners held since the government’s crackdown that began in May were detained in Directorate of Judicial Assistance temporary holding cells, known as El Chipote. Relatives of the prisoners reported that at least four women were held in solitary confinement in El Chipote since June.
Inmates also suffered from parasites, inadequate medical attention, frequent food shortages and food contamination, contaminated water, and inadequate sanitation. The COVID-19 pandemic compounded these conditions. The government failed to take adequate measures to protect inmates from illness. Prison authorities prohibited the delivery of health and hygiene kits provided by family members for inmates to protect themselves from COVID-19, particularly in the case of political prisoners. Human rights groups reported that prison authorities randomly fumigated prisons with inmates still inside their cells. Although sanitary conditions for female inmates were generally better than those for men, they were nevertheless unsafe and unhygienic. According to the most recently available government report, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office received five complaints related to prison conditions between January 2019 and September 2020, of which it resolved four and dismissed one as unsubstantiated. The Human Rights Office did not make updated numbers publicly available for the year.
Conditions in jails and temporary holding cells were also harsh. Most facilities were physically decrepit and infested with vermin; had inadequate ventilation, electricity, or sewage systems; and lacked potable water.
The government continued to release common criminals outside of lawfully prescribed procedures, telling them their release was “thanks to the president.” Between January and October, the government released up to 2,700 prisoners. Independent media and human rights organizations reported that following their release, some of these individuals were responsible for at least two femicides and one killing.
Administration: Although prisoners and detainees could submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions, authorities often ignored or did not process complaints. The extent to which the government investigated allegations of poor prison conditions was unknown. The government ombudsman could serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees to consider such matters as informal alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, although this generally did not occur.
The government restricted political prisoners’ access to visitors, attorneys, and physicians. Staff members of human rights organizations, family members, and other interested parties were not allowed access to the prison system or to prisoners in custody.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to some prisoners but denied prison visits by local human rights groups and media outlets. The government reportedly denied the ICRC access to 40 political prisoners detained since May 28, despite ICRC requests to see those detainees. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally received complaints through family members of inmates and often were unable to follow up on cases until after the release of the prisoner due to lack of access. The government denied all requests from local human rights organizations for access to prison facilities.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Human rights NGOs, however, noted hundreds of cases of arbitrary arrests by police and parapolice forces, although parapolice have no authority to make arrests. Human rights organizations reported police and parapolice agents routinely detained and released government opponents within a 48-hour window, beyond which the Public Prosecutor’s Office would have to request to extend detention for up to 90 days to continue its investigation. Detentions of political opponents mostly occurred without a warrant or formal accusation and for causes outside the legal framework.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires police to obtain a warrant from a judicial authority prior to detaining a suspect and to notify family members of the detainee’s whereabouts within 24 hours, but this rarely happened in the context of arrests related to civil unrest.
Police may hold a suspect legally for 48 hours before arraignment or release; however, a February amendment to the criminal procedural code allows for the Public Prosecutor’s Office to request an extension for 15 to 90 days if a judge deems the case complex. A judge then must order the suspect released or transferred to jail for pretrial detention. The suspect is permitted family member visits after the initial 48 hours. A detainee has the right to bail unless a judge deems there is a flight risk. The criminal code lists a number of crimes that may be tried by a judge without a jury and that would not qualify for bail or house arrest during the duration of the trial. Detainees have the right to an attorney immediately following their arrest, and the state provides indigent detainees with a public defender. In several instances authorities denied having detainees under custody in a specific jail, even to their family members or legal counsel. Police routinely rejected complaints filed by prodemocracy opposition activists.
The government used money laundering laws, a foreign agents law, and a law for the defense of sovereignty against political opponents. Human rights organizations and civil society activists asserted that these laws constituted part of a larger scheme by the ruling FSLN party to exert its own concept of sovereign security, laid out in the 2015 Sovereign Security Law, which significantly broadened the definition of state sovereignty and security, as a pretext to arrest protesters and citizens it deemed in opposition to its goals.
Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGOs and other human rights groups, arbitrary arrests occurred regularly, particularly of those the government deemed active opposition members or participants in previous prodemocracy protests. The government detained several members of the opposition for extended periods using Law 1055 (Law for the Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination for Peace). The statute does not specify sentencing guidelines, and the individuals were eventually charged under other statutes.
For example, the 40 political prisoners detained between May and November were not allowed to choose their own legal counsel and were arbitrarily assigned a public defender for their initial pretrial hearings. After holding the political prisoners incommunicado for months, the government permitted most to choose their own legal counsel and allowed family visits on three occasions. The law allows for family visits ranging from every eight days to every 21 days. Family visits were restricted to once a month only to highly dangerous prisoners. Prison authorities held the political prisoners incommunicado for 50 to 80 days before allowing them to see an attorney of their choice and receive limited family visits. Their hearings were not public, and most lawyers did not receive a copy of the court records prior to the trial. In an effort to impede access to legal counsel, hearings for political prisoners were held inside the jail instead of a court of law, outside of normal working hours. Judicial officials did not record the hearings or give the defendant’s legal counsel a transcript of the hearings. Other prisoners also reported a lack of immediate access to an attorney or legal counsel and were not afforded one during their detention.
In many cases police and parapolice detained persons who had participated in prodemocracy protests in 2018 and 2019 but who were not currently participating in any activity deemed illegal or in opposition to the ruling party. Police often arrested these individuals without a warrant and occasionally entered private homes or businesses without a court order. In several cases police raided and ransacked the houses of those detained, also without court warrants. Many arrests were allegedly made without informing family members or legal counsel. Reports were common of armed, hooded men in plain clothes acting alone or together with police to arrest and detain prodemocracy protesters. In several cases groups of hooded men looted the homes of political opponents immediately after police left the scene. Human rights organizations indicated that delays in the release of prisoners after finishing prison terms led to many cases of arbitrary continuation of a state of arrest. Police also committed irregular arrests and detentions under the guise of investigations into armed opposition groups or other violent crimes in the north-central regions of the country.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention continued to be a problem. Many opposition leaders and prodemocracy protesters were detained and held with no charges and without following due process. Observers noted that in several instances lengthy pretrial detention was intentional against specific protest leaders. Observers attributed other delays to limited facilities, an overburdened judicial system, judicial inaction, and high crime rates. No information was available on the percentage of the prison population in pretrial detention or the national average length of pretrial detention.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: While the law provides detainees the ability to challenge the legality of their detention before a court, the government generally did not allow those arrested during protests to challenge in court the lawfulness of their arrests or detentions. In cases of political opponents, judges regularly denied or ignored constitutional protections for detainees, including habeas corpus.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the government did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. The law requires vetting of new judicial appointments by the Supreme Court of Justice, a process dominated by the government. Once appointed, most judges submitted to political pressure and economic inducements for themselves or family members that compromised their independence. The 40 political prisoners arrested between May 28 and November 10 were subjected to closed pretrial hearings without access to their own lawyers or notification of family members. The court arbitrarily assigned public defenders for these detainees. Although the Public Prosecutor’s Office announced these hearings afterwards, details were scarce. These detainees were held incommunicado for up to 80 days without access to independent private legal counsel or to family members. The justice system did not confirm the location of these detainees. The cases of these detainees did not appear in an online system for public access to legal cases. Five FSLN-aligned judges – Henry Morales, Nalia Ubeda, Abelardo Alvir, Karen Chavarria, and Gloria Saavedra – oversaw the pretrial hearings against these detainees. These judges routinely denied writs in favor of the defendants and in some cases denied defendants and their lawyers access to the accusations and other court documents before the hearings. After holding them incommunicado for months, the government permitted most political prisoners to choose their own legal counsel starting in August.
NGOs complained of delayed justice caused by judicial inaction and widespread impunity, especially regarding family and domestic violence and sexual abuse. In cases against political activists, judges at the bidding of the government handed down biased judgments, including adding charges for crimes not presented by the prosecutor’s office. Lawyers for political prisoners reported that judges routinely dismissed defendants’ evidence and accepted prosecutors’ anonymous sources as valid. In many cases trial start times were changed with no information provided to one or both sides of the trial, according to human rights organizations. Authorities occasionally failed to respect court orders.
The law provides the right to a fair and public trial. Changes to the law enacted in 2017, however, allow judges to deny jury trials in a wider range of cases, deny bail or house arrest based on unclear rules, and arbitrarily move a case from other judicial districts to Managua, to the disadvantage of defendants, their families, or their counsel. Defendants have the right to be fully and promptly informed of the charges against them and the right to a fair trial, although this was not respected. While the law establishes specific time periods for cases to come to trial, most cases encountered long delays. Trials are public, except in some cases involving minors or at the victim’s request. The law requires defendants must be present at their trial, although this was not always respected.
The hearings for many political prisoners detained between May and September did not conform to legal procedures. The defendants were detained without warrants and were not afforded legal counsel of their choice or access to their family members within 48 hours after their detention or during at least two initial hearings. Their location was not publicly disclosed, judges dismissed or ignored habeas corpus writs in their favor, hearings and trials were closed to the public and held within the detention center, and, when they finally had access to their legal counsel of choice, judicial and prison officials denied lawyers access to their clients and refused to provide lawyers with the court documents before trial, including the charges against their clients.
According to the constitution, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Observers claimed, however, that the extension of time from 48 hours to up to 90 days that a detainee can be held during a pretrial investigation posed an undue presumption of guilt on defendants. In the case of the political prisoners detained between May and November, Chief of Police Francisco Diaz told official media that police had “enough proof to ensure that these terrorists, these vandals, these coup-mongers face the consequences.” Diaz gave the interview when the defendants were still awaiting trial and before any charges were confirmed. The Public Prosecutor’s Office presented police officers as witnesses in hearings on these charges. In her daily press briefings, Vice President Murillo frequently referred to political prisoners as “terrorists” and “coup-mongers,” although the prisoners were still awaiting trial.
Migration authorities confiscated the passports of at least 30 Nicaraguans at either the international airport or at land border crossings, although the individuals had no formal charges pending against them. Officials provided no explanation other than saying authorities higher up the chain of command had ordered migratory restrictions against the individuals. Some human rights defenders saw this as a de facto presumption of guilt without a formal accusation. The government also prevented a civil society leader from returning to the country, without reason or formal charge against the individual. Under the law defendants have the right to legal counsel, and the state provides public defenders for indigent persons. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, but judges commonly failed to grant counsel’s access to the defendant. In several instances related to prodemocracy protests, defendants were not allowed to name their legal counsel, and the court appointed a public defender, which family members and human rights organizations claimed was detrimental to the defendant’s case. In many cases involving the government’s political opponents, private defense lawyers were barred from meeting with defendants and trial times were set outside of working hours in an effort to force the accused to accept a public defender appointed by a biased judiciary. Additionally, several pretrial hearings took place in detention centers rather than a courtroom, without notifying defendants’ legal counsel. In at least one instance, lawyers who entered the detention center to participate in the trial were threatened by a guard, who wondered aloud whether the lawyers would be allowed to leave the prison after the hearing. At least seven lawyers defending political prisoners were forced to flee the country due to harassment and death threats against them. Although the constitution recognizes indigenous languages, indigenous defendants were not always granted court interpreters or translators. Under the law defendants may confront and question witnesses and have the right to appeal a conviction. Defendants may present their own witnesses and evidence in their defense; however, some judges refused to admit evidence on behalf of the defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Nevertheless, many defendants continued to be interrogated by police and prison guards while their trials were in process.
Women’s rights organizations believed the court system continued to operate under unofficial orders not to impose jail time or pretrial detention in domestic violence cases. The policy reportedly applied only to domestic violence cases that authorities considered mild.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Human rights NGOs characterized as political prisoners those detained in the context of prodemocracy protests and those detained as part of the government’s crackdown on the political opposition starting in May. The government does not recognize political prisoners as an inmate category and considers all prisoners to be common criminals. According to human rights organizations, the government continued to hold more than 150 political prisoners as of September, with at least 20 of them in solitary confinement.
Political prisoners did not receive appropriate health care, including while suffering COVID-19 symptoms. Several political prisoners were severely undernourished, with no access to sunlight or appropriate health-care services. Some political prisoners were denied access to medicine and medical treatment for chronic illnesses.
Political prisoners were kept together with common criminals. Advocacy groups reported that prison authorities instigated quarrels between the general prison population and political prisoners by blaming political prisoners for any withheld privileges, often resulting in violence. Human rights organizations received several reports of political prisoners being beaten, threatened, held in solitary confinement for weeks, and suffering from poor ventilation and poisoned or contaminated food and water.
The government did not permit access to political prisoners by local human rights groups.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Groups of exiles in Costa Rica alleged political persecution by parapolice and FSLN sympathizers who crossed the border to target exiles. Family members of opposition exiles were surveilled and harassed in an attempt to force exiles to return to the country and face arrest. In at least one instance, migration authorities withheld documentation for a minor to exit the country in an effort to force the exiled father to return to Nicaragua and face arrest. The Public Prosecutor’s Office accused three exiled Nicaraguans of conspiring to undermine national integrity.
In October 2020 the National Assembly approved the politically motivated Cybercrimes Law, which establishes the government may use the international extradition system to pursue Nicaraguans abroad who commit so-called cybercrimes.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals and organizations may file suit in civil courts to seek damages for alleged human rights violations, but authorities did not always respect court decisions.
The lack of an effective civil law system resulted in some civil matters being pursued as criminal cases, which were often resolved more quickly. In several instances, individuals and groups appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which passed their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The government regularly dismissed or ignored orders from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, including orders to protect or release certain political prisoners.
Property Seizure and Restitution
The government regularly failed to take effective action with respect to seizure, restitution, or compensation of private property. These failures were exacerbated by the social upheaval in 2018, in which groups of persons, including members of the FSLN, illegally took over privately owned lands, with implicit and explicit support by municipal and national officials. Some land seizures were politically targeted and directed against specific individuals, such as business owners traditionally considered independent or against the ruling party. In August the government seized the house of independent journalist Patricia Orozco while she was in exile, and police evicted her parents from the house. On September 7, the government revoked a 2008 donation of property to the National Public Accountant’s College. The revocation happened several days after the Public Prosecutor’s Office summoned the coordinator of the college for questioning regarding the government’s politically motivated money laundering case against a foundation run by a presidential precandidate.
The Office of the Attorney General routinely either rejected requests to evict illegal occupants of real property or failed to respond to the requests altogether. National and local police also routinely refused to evict illegal occupants of real property. Police often took no action against violence perpetrated by illegal occupants, while acting swiftly against any use of force by legitimate property owners. The judicial system delayed final decisions on cases against illegal occupants. Members of the judiciary, including those at senior levels, were widely believed to be corrupt or subject to political pressure. When judges issued orders in favor of landowners, enforcement of court orders was frequently subject to nonjudicial considerations. In the face of government inaction, some landowners were forced to pay squatters to leave their real property. As of September nine NGOs still did not have a legal resolution or any type of compensation after the National Assembly annulled their legal status and the government seized their properties in 2018.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, but the government did not respect this right. Restrictions on press freedom, the absence of an independent judiciary, and a nondemocratic political system combined to inhibit freedom of expression, including for members of media. Although the law provides that the right to information may not be subjected to censorship, the government and actors under its control retaliated against the press and radio and television stations by blocking transmissions, impeding the import of ink and paper, and committing violence against journalists. The government sought to control information on the COVID pandemic by restricting news coverage and blocking independent media access to public health briefings, as well as using government-aligned media to publish misinformation.
Freedom of Expression: The government used reprisals and Law 1055 to restrict the ability of individuals to criticize the government. Persons who criticized the government, the ruling party, or its policies were subjected to police and parapolice surveillance, harassment, imprisonment, and abuse. Beginning in May, the government used the law as a pretext to arrest and imprison presidential candidates, independent journalists, civil society members, opposition leaders, NGO workers, student leaders, human rights defenders, farmworker advocates, and private-sector leaders who criticized the government. Progovernment supporters considered the use of the national flag and the national colors of white and blue as acts of defiance and attacked opposition activists flying the flag or national colors.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, albeit mainly through online venues due to the government’s restrictions and intimidation. In June and July, the government arrested five independent journalists, including three presidential precandidates, and the general manager of the country’s largest print daily newspaper on charges of “undermining national integrity.” As of October the general manager and three of the journalists were awaiting trials while in prison, and two journalists remained under house arrest. The Public Prosecutor’s Office summoned at least 32 journalists as part of an investigation into alleged money laundering against the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, an NGO that supported independent media by offering journalism training programs. In some cases the journalists had received seed funding to pursue new digital startups or other forms of independent journalism. At least 30 journalists fled into exile due to threats or summons from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which in the case of other independent journalists and political opponents resulted in imprisonment.
Independent media outlets experienced vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, cyberattacks, and criminal defamation charges. On August 13, after a public complaint by the newspaper La Prensa that the Customs Office had withheld its paper and printing material for months, police raided the newspaper’s headquarters and detained the general manager, preventing him from accessing legal counsel and detaining him for several weeks without bringing him before a judge. Police held La Prensa journalists and staff for hours inside the newspaper’s offices and allowed progovernment media to enter and film the police raid. Police later announced the raid was part of an investigation into the newspaper for money laundering and tax evasion. La Prensa, the last remaining daily print newspaper with national distribution, moved to online-only content and dismissed half its employees in September because of government persecution.
The government repeatedly denied broadcasting licenses and other permits for independent media. Independent news outlets faced restrictions on speech, such as not being permitted to attend official government events, being denied interviews by government officials, and receiving limited or no direct access to government information. Official media, however, were not similarly restricted. The government published false COVID-19 data that minimized the spread of the illness in the country. International reports and unpublished official documents showed the government intentionally misled the public about the severity of the pandemic to avoid an economic downturn.
Independent media faced official and unofficial restrictions, reprisals, and harassment, but they were nonetheless successful in expressing a variety of views. Journalists from many stations were threatened and harassed with the purpose of limiting their editorial independence. According to a September report by the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro foundation titled Assault on Independent Press in Nicaragua between December 2020 and June 2021, there were 1,176 assaults on journalists while they performed their duties. Of those, 426 assaults were perpetrated against female journalists and included sexual violence and threats of rape.
Significant state influence, ownership, and control over the majority of media outlets continued. National television was largely controlled either by business associates of the president or directly owned and administered by his family members. Eight of the 10 basic channels available were under direct FSLN influence or owned and controlled by persons with close ties to the government. Media stations owned by the presidential family generally limited news programming and served as outlets for progovernment or FSLN propaganda and campaign advertisements. On June 30, the governing authority for telecommunications published a decree obliging all private cable stations to lock in their broadcasts to official television and radio for emergency or special interest messaging. This decree compounded the already established obligation for open-air television and radio stations to do the same. This obligation was enforced every time the president participated in a public event, even when it was a political party event. Press and human rights organizations claimed the use of state funds for official media, as well as biased distribution of government advertising dollars, placed independent outlets at an extreme disadvantage.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to government violence, harassment, and death threats. Four journalists remained in prison: three after they indicated they would run as presidential candidates and one for expressing his views on social media. Two others remained under house arrest. Since May more than 30 journalists fled into exile with pending accusations against them from the Public Prosecutor’s Office. At least 90 journalists had already fled following the government’s crackdown on protesters in 2018. The Ministry of Health took possession of offices belonging to television station 100% Noticias and news magazine Confidencial, which had been closed and under police custody since a 2018 raid of those facilities.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government continued to arbitrarily penalize those who published items counter to the ruling party’s ideology. The government restricted access to public events, obligated independent press to use official media to cover presidential activities, and actively used troll farms to amplify its own messaging or attack independent media websites. In November, Meta (Facebook’s parent company) announced the removal of troll farms operated by the government, implicating the telecommunications regulator TELCOR, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Social Security Institute.
Restrictions in acquiring broadcast licenses and equipment prevented media from operating freely. Beginning in 2008, media outlets were unable to apply for new broadcasting licenses while the General Law (Law 200) on Telecommunications was under review in the National Assembly. The government extended the validity of existing licenses indefinitely. Human rights groups and independent media also reported that the failure to approve or deny Law 200 resulted in uncertainty surrounding the purchase and import of goods related to broadcasting. As a result, independent radio owners continued to defer long-term investments.
Some independent-media owners also alleged the government exerted pressure on private firms to limit advertising in independent media, although other observers believed the lack of advertising was the result of self-censorship by private companies or a business decision based on circulation numbers. Many journalists practiced self-censorship, fearing economic and physical repercussions for investigative reporting on crime or official corruption. In addition media outlet owners exercised self-censorship by choosing not to publish news that affected public perceptions of the government or the FSLN.
Libel/Slander Laws: In February FSLN-aligned judge Jose Ernesto Martinez found journalist David Quintana guilty on trumped-up slander charges after Quintana was accused by a staff member of an official television station in 2020. Another FSLN-aligned judge, Fatima Rosales, denied Quintana’s request for appeal in April. In June a judge denied an appeal on behalf of independent radio station director Kalua Salazar in a slander case brought against Salazar by FSLN municipal workers. Slander and libel are both punishable by fines ranging from 120 to 300 times the minimum daily wage.
National Security: Human rights NGOs and civil society organizations argued the Sovereign Security Law exemplified the government’s failure to respect civil liberties. Although not cited in specific cases, the law applies to “any other factor that creates danger to the security of the people, life, family, and community, as well as the supreme interests of the Nicaraguan nation.” The government used and threatened further use of the Cybercrimes Law, which includes as online crimes social media posts deemed dangerous by the regime and grants law enforcement access to information systems and other data. On September 7, the Public Prosecutor’s Office accused indigenous rights activist Amaru Ruiz of cybercrimes after he reported extensively on social media about the killing of 13 indigenous persons by individuals suspected by human rights groups to have ties to the government. Penalties for online crimes include prison time and hefty fines, disproportionate to the crimes as broadly defined by the law.
A police regulation restricts criticism of government policies and officials under the guise of protecting national security.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The government did not respect the legal right to public assembly, demonstration, and mobilization. Prodemocracy marches and protests continued to be banned during the year. Police and parapolice actively persecuted, harassed, and occasionally impeded private meetings of NGOs, civil society groups, and opposition political organizations. Police failed to protect peaceful protesters from attacks; they also committed attacks and provided logistical support to other attackers. Human rights organizations reported police stopped traffic for and otherwise protected progovernment demonstrations.
Police routinely surrounded, surveilled, and threatened meetings of political parties and civil society organizations. Police entered private meeting spaces to disrupt gatherings of opposition parties and civil society organizations.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for freedom of association, including the right to organize or affiliate with political parties; nevertheless, the Supreme Electoral Council and National Assembly used their accreditation powers for political purposes. National Assembly accreditation is mandatory for NGOs to receive funding, have bank accounts, or legally employ workers. The Ministry of the Interior has oversight of regulatory compliance by NGOs and provides certificates. Many NGOs that worked on topics of democracy, human rights, and women’s issues complained the ministry purposefully withheld certification to hinder their work and access to funding.
Beginning in February, the government began enforcing the 2020 Foreign Agents Law with far-reaching implications for entities and employees of entities receiving funding from outside the country. The law requires anyone receiving funding from foreign sources to register with the Ministry of the Interior and provide monthly, detailed accounts of how funds are intended to be used. Additionally, NGOs need to present their legal accreditation, subject to annual renewal by the ministry. Many NGOs complained that the ministry purposefully withheld or delayed this accreditation, which led to the loss of their legal status. Individuals who register as foreign agents cannot participate in internal politics or run for elected positions for up to one year after being removed from the registry. Failure to register can lead to fines, judicial freezing of assets, and the loss of legal status for associations or NGOs. The Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation decided to close before the deadline to register to avoid being labeled a foreign agent. The government, through the Public Prosecutor’s Office, accused the NGO, its staff, and the beneficiaries of its grants of money laundering. Up to 142 individuals, including vendors, consultants, staff, and 32 journalists, were summoned for the investigation. Some NGO staff remained imprisoned during the government’s 90-day investigation period. In June the government placed Cristiana Chamorro, the foundation’s former executive director and a leading opposition presidential precandidate, under house arrest on related accusations of money laundering.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot, the government restricted freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Institutional fraud, among other obstacles, precluded opportunities for meaningful choice.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In November President Ortega awarded himself a fourth term in office following a deeply flawed electoral process characterized by historically low voter turnout. Ortega and his FSLN party cancelled the legal registration of all credible opposition political parties, jailed opposition presidential candidates on spurious charges, and committed blatant electoral fraud. Independent observer groups and international organizations characterized the electoral process as not credible. The government did not allow credible, independent electoral observers into the country. The 2021 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and the elimination of restrictions on re-election for executive branch officials and mayors. On November 12, a total of 25 member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) voted in favor of a resolution declaring the elections were “not free, fair or transparent, and lack democratic legitimacy.”
The 2019 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections were marred by widespread institutional fraud and heavy security force presence.
Civil society groups expressed concerns over the lack of a transparent and fair electoral process leading up to the 2021 national elections, the 2019 Caribbean regional elections, and the 2017 municipal elections. Electoral experts, business leaders, representatives of the Catholic Church, and civil society organizations reported that a lack of accredited domestic or international observation, in addition to the ruling party’s control over all aspects of the official electoral structure and all branches of government, combined to impede holding free and fair elections.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) announced on May 18 that it had cancelled the legal status of the opposition Democratic Restoration Party. On May 19, the CSE announced it cancelled the legal status the Conservative Party. On August 6, the CSE revoked the legal status of a third opposition party, Citizens for Liberty. The remaining political parties were controlled by the Ortega regime, paving the way for Ortega to run unopposed in the November elections. In 2020 the National Assembly passed a law that bars anyone from running for office whom the government designated as a “traitor,” defining the term so broadly that it could be applied to anyone who expressed opposition to the ruling party. In June the ruling party used this law to jail at least six individuals who had signaled they would run as opposition presidential candidates.
The government used state resources for political activities to enhance the FSLN’s electoral advantage in recent elections. Independent media, human rights groups, and opposition parties reported the government used public funds to provide subsidized food, housing, vaccinations, access to clinics, and other benefits directly through either FSLN-led “family cabinets” (community-based bodies that administer government social programs) or party-controlled Sandinista leadership committee (CLS) systems, which reportedly coerced citizens into FSLN membership while denying services to opposition members. The regime also made party membership mandatory for an increasing number of public-sector employees. Observers noted government employees continued to be pressured into affiliating with the FSLN and participating in party activities. During the year the government pressured public servants to participate in mass public gatherings including sports events, political rallies, and marches despite the dangers of spreading COVID-19 via mass gatherings.
The FSLN also used its authority to decide who could obtain national identity cards. Persons seeking to obtain or retain public-sector employment, national identity documents, or voter registration were obliged to obtain recommendation letters from CLS block captains. Those without identity cards were unable to vote and had difficulty participating in the legal economy or conducting bank transactions. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership. Civil society organizations continued to express concern about the politicized distribution of identity cards, alleging this was one way the FSLN manipulated past elections and that the CSE failed to provide identity cards to opposition members while widely distributing them to party loyalists.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups, including persons with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons; and indigenous persons, in the political process, and they did participate, although observers noted most women in elected positions at the municipal and national levels held limited power or influence in their respective bodies.