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
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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
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.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
According to contacts and local media, hundreds of participants in the 2018 prodemocracy protests and others who ran afoul of the Ortega regime remained in hiding to evade government persecution, including arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture. These individuals reported being unable to find work or study due to fear of government reprisals. As the root cause of this forced displacement, the government did not promote the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of internally displaced persons. The government does not have policies and protections for internally displaced persons in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.