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 executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. President Ortega was inaugurated to a third term in office in January 2017 following a deeply flawed electoral process. The 2016 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. 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 maintains 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, masked, and armed groups 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. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, committed by the government or its agents; forced disappearances by parapolice forces; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by prison guards and parapolice; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detentions by police and parapolice; political prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; a serious lack of independence of the judiciary; and arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy. There were serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including threats of violence, censorship, and criminal libel; and substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, as well as severe restrictions on religious freedom, including attacks on the Roman Catholic Church and church officials. The government continued to block nine nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations from recovering their legal status and illegally withheld their assets, preventing them from operating; during the year the government stripped one more nongovernmental organization of its legal status. Government restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly precluded any meaningful choice in elections. Elections for municipal authorities as well as for president and vice president and National Assembly representatives have been considered marred by fraud and irregularities since 2008. There was widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; discrimination and violence against ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; threats and attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation.
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, campesino activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, human rights defenders, and Catholic clergy. Human rights groups alleged that between October 2018 and August, parapolice killed at least 30 campesinos considered to be opponents of the ruling party.
The government did not take steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, including those responsible for at least 325 killings and hundreds of disappearances during the prodemocracy uprising of April 2018. President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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. 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 nine 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.
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. The government reported their Human Rights Ombudsman Office received five complaints related to prison conditions between January 2019 and September, of which it resolved four and dismissed one as unsubstantiated.
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 released 8,114 prisoners between January and September. Many of these prisoners were released outside of lawfully prescribed procedures and were told their release was “thanks to the president.”
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 monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross but denied prison visits by local human rights groups and media outlets. 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, Including:
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were government restrictions on academic freedom, and many students, academics, and researchers reported pressure to censor themselves.
Public universities expelled from school and erased the records of many university students who participated in prodemocracy protests. In many cases, students who went into exile could not continue their studies abroad without their records. Entrances to public universities remained under surveillance by progovernment guards who regularly checked every visitor and often by police. Some university rectors reported university enrollment following the prodemocracy uprising fell to 50 percent of precrisis levels. The public Poly-Technical University (UPOLI) expelled opposition student leader Dolly Mora, claiming security issues. FSLN-controlled student groups at UPOLI harassed Mora and others who in 2018 had protested against the government’s violent crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators. According to reports, leaders of these FSLN-controlled student groups threatened the dean of UPOLI with violence on campus to force Mora’s expulsion.
Human rights NGOs and civil society groups reported authorities required students in elementary and secondary public schools to participate in progovernment rallies while schools were in session. Political propaganda for the ruling party was posted inside public schools. Teacher organizations and NGOs alleged continuing FSLN interference in the school system through the use of school facilities as FSLN campaign headquarters, favoritism shown to members of FSLN youth groups or to children of FSLN members, politicized awarding of scholarships, and the use of pro-FSLN education materials.
Public schools were ordered to continue in-person classes even as COVID-19 spread across the country. Teachers were ordered to punish absences and identify those students who were not attending classes. By August at least 46 public school teachers had died from COVID-19.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government does not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The government has not provided updated information on refugees or asylum seekers since 2015.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Only the executive branch or the country’s embassies abroad may grant asylum for political persecution. The Nicaraguan National Commission for Refugees has not met since 2015.
Durable Solutions: The government recognized 61 persons as refugees in 2015, the most recent year for which information was available. By mid-2018 UNHCR counted 326 refugees or persons in refugee-like situations in the country.