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.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence. The government, however, failed to respect these prohibitions. In several trials against political opposition members, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented messages, emails, and documents exchanged through private phones and computers, obtained by police through raids without judicial warrants. FSLN grassroots organizations such as the Citizen Power Councils colluded with parapolice or party loyalists to target the homes of prodemocracy protesters. Without a warrant and under no legal authority, these groups illegally raided homes and detained occupants. Police routinely stationed police vehicles and officers outside the homes of opposition members, harassing visitors and often prohibiting opposition members from leaving their houses. These actions were widespread in large cities, particularly Managua, Matagalpa, Esteli, Masaya, Rivas, Leon, and Jinotega.
The Ministry of Health continued to hold several buildings seized by the Interior Ministry in 2018 from independent television station 100% Noticias and news magazine Confidencial and nine NGOs when it annulled the legal status of the media groups and NGOs. The ministry ordered the seized assets transferred to government ownership to create a Comprehensive Attention and Reparation Fund for the Victims of Terrorism. The government carried out this de facto confiscation without following due process or providing appropriate compensation to the lawful owners. Police again raided the offices and television studio of Confidencial on May 20, acting without a judicial warrant and seizing television equipment, computers, and documents from the news outlet.
Domestic NGOs, Catholic Church representatives, journalists, and opposition members alleged the government monitored their email and telephone conversations. Church representatives also stated their sermons were monitored. As part of a continuing social media campaign against prodemocracy protests, ruling party members and supporters used social media to publish personal information of human rights defenders and civil society members. Progovernment supporters marked the houses of civil society members with derogatory slurs or threats and then published photographs of the marked houses on social media. On several occasions the markings were accompanied by or led to destruction of private property. Although the law prohibits the use of drones, some members of the opposition claimed FSLN supporters used drones to spy on their houses.
Inhabitants in northern towns, particularly in the departments of Nueva Segovia, Jinotega, and Madriz, as well as the RACN and the South Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACS), alleged repeated government interrogations and searches without cause or warrant, related to supposed support for armed groups or prodemocracy protests, while government officials claimed they were confronting common criminals. Several opposition members who were former Contras claimed they were regularly surveilled, stopped, and detained by police for questioning for several hours, usually in connection with alleged contact with rearmed groups or antigovernment protests. The individuals also said progovernment sympathizers verbally threatened them outside their homes and surveilled and defaced their houses.
The ruling party reportedly required citizens to demonstrate party membership to obtain or retain employment in the public sector and have access to public social programs.
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.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not always respect these rights. On July 16, the government denied Lesther Javier Aleman entry to the country despite being a Nicaraguan citizen and showing a valid Nicaraguan passport. Aleman was ordered to fly out of the country the same day. Aleman was the father of student leader Lesther Aleman Alfaro, who was arrested on July 6 in a crackdown on the opposition. The government strictly controlled the entry of persons affiliated with some groups, specifically humanitarian and faith-based organizations. The government may prevent the departure of travelers with pending legal cases; the government used this authority against individuals involved in the political opposition and media who had not been charged with any crimes. The law requires exit visas for minors.
In-country Movement: Police consistently restricted the travel of opposition members to cities other than their hometown. In many cases police restricted the movement of political opponents outside their homes, although these individuals did not have pending charges against them or judicially imposed restrictions on their movement.
Foreign Travel: Migration authorities confiscated the passports of at least 15 Nicaraguans who were trying to leave the country. Authorities told the individuals that migration restrictions had been levied on them, although the individuals had no formal accusations or charges against them.
Citizenship: On August 6, the ruling FSLN party used its control over government agencies to revoke the Nicaraguan nationality of opposition leader Carmella Rogers Amburn (also known as Kitty Monterrey) without due process. The ruling party, however, issued citizenship to ideologically aligned foreigners fleeing corruption charges in their countries, such as former Salvadoran president Salvador Sanchez Ceren and several of his close family members, bypassing the law and procedures.