“Nicaragua must not criminalise legitimate practices such as participation in peaceful protests”, said Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
A new rash of attacks and arrests have followed the third anniversary of widespread protests that broke out in April 2018, over planned social security reforms, and a lack of State response to a fire in the Indio Maíz Nature Reserve. Violent repression by security forces of protesters, led to further unrest.
“The State should refrain from initiating criminal proceedings based on generic or disproportionate charges”, she said.
The April anniversary has often been a flashpoint, including in the case of Celia Cruz, a trans woman and human rights defender, who was detained on 21 April of last year following protests in Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua.
Despite identifying as a woman, Ms. Cruz was held in an all-male prison, which exposed her to sexual assault and verbal violence. She was released more than a year later, on 25 April.
The UN expert also drew attention to John Christopher Cerna Zúñiga, another defender who has reportedly suffered ill treatment in prison.
The student leader was arrested in February 2020 and sentenced to 12 years in prison on the allegedly trumped-up charges of drug trafficking – aimed to prevent him from working as a human rights defender.
Reports received indicate that they were both ill-treated in prison, denied medical care, attacked and sexually assaulted.
Moreover, people who protest against the Government, are put into maximum security cells with increased surveillance, searches and isolation.
Searching for answers
Nicaraguan human rights defenders are still trying to obtain justice and reparations for those killed during the 2018 protests, which Ms. Lawlor called particularly important ahead of general elections scheduled for November.
“Nicaragua must redouble its efforts to guarantee the right of human rights defenders to peaceful assembly and the right to defend rights”, she said.
“The work of defenders is more essential than ever. Their role in protecting human rights and assisting vulnerable populations must be protected, not undermined”, added the Special Rapporteur.
She is in contact with the Nicaraguan authorities on this issue.
Click here for a list of other UN independent experts who endorsed her call.
Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. Their positions are honorary and they are not paid for their work.