Political Imprisonment in Nicaragua

A political prisoner is someone imprisoned for their political beliefs or actions. In general, they are imprisoned for having opposed or criticized the government responsible for their imprisonment. Just as the family members of these prisoners and many Nicaraguan human rights organizations, we use the term to challenge and question the legitimacy of these detentions.

At this moment, December 2020, the Nicaraguan government is holding 108 people as political prisoners. They are largely subject to the same dynamics as described below, and will not be released unless the government decides so, which is increasingly unlikely.

Due to the conflation of state powers under the current government, meaning that the judiciary is far from independent, at least 400 political prisoners were charged and close to 150 were convicted before the passing of the 8 June 2019 Amnesty law (which was highly criticized, especially by political prisoners themselves, as it controversially paired the liberation of the political prisoners with impunity for state-committed crimes against protesters). The ‘first group’ of almost 900 political prisoners, included human rights defenders, student and peasant protest leaders, and autoconvocados (self-convened protesters). Until the arrest of the 16 human rights activists on 14 November 2019, the remaining 139 political prisoners were all autoconvocados. The human rights activists were released on 28 December 2019, together with about six dozen other political prisoners. Ever since, however, the police have been re-capturing former political prisoners, tracking down dissidents and members of the opposition, to arbitrarily detain them on false charges of drug-trafficking or other ‘regular’ crimes. At present, there are again over 100 political prisoners in the regime’s prison cells.

Who are the people currently detained, where are they being held, and what is the situation they face?

Family members outside the Chipote jail in Managua protest the detention of their loved ones, 2019. Photo courtesy La Prensa.

The majority of the current political prisoners are young. Most of them are held in the capital city of Managua, at ‘La Modelo‘ state penitentiary or ‘El Chipote’ police jail, though there are also political prisoners at the Penitentiary of Matagalpa and the Penitentiary of Granada. Female political prisoners are largely held at ‘La Esperanza’ women’s prison. Conditions at the Chipote jail are horrific and stories of torture and (sexual) abuse rampant (see, for instance, this September 2020 RIDH human rights report and the 2-year IACHR report). At La Modelo political prisoners used to be purposely kept separate from the regular prisoner population in Block 16 and the maximum security pavilion known as ‘La 300’. Now, however, those remaining are dispersed among the regular prisoner cell blocks and a handful are still held in the maximum security pavilion. Some of them are spending time in La Modelo even though they have not yet been convicted, and are kept under a regime meant for long-sentenced prisoners with disciplinary issues.

A group of Matagalpans demanding the liberation of political prisoners on 5 August 2018. Photo courtesy La Prensa.

Human Rights Violations & Legal Irregularities

In the cases built against political prisoners, human rights violations and legal irregularities are rampant – often from the moment of arrest right through the moment of conviction. Human rights organizations, defence lawyers and relatives of political prisoners have denounced that the arrests and trials of these Nicaraguans have been riddled with irregularities and violations of their human and constitutional rights. For instance:

  • Criminalization of the legitimate and constitutional right to protest;
  • Arbitrary arrests, detentions without warrants, and ‘kidnap’ detentions by irregular armed forces (paramilitaries);
  • Excessive use of force in arrests and beatings/torture upon ‘interrogation’;
  • Processing of accusers in non-corresponding jurisdictions;
  • Denial of medical attention;
  • Denial of family visits; 
  • Cruel, inhumanand degrading treatment against the accused;
  • Physical and psychological abuse;
  • Stigmatization and anticipated verdicts by the National Police and media related to the government (violating the right to the presumption of innocence);
  • Abuse of the figure of “protected witness” to ensure false testimony;
  • Abuse of the figure of “protected witness” for the use of false witnesses.

In short, political prisoners in Nicaragua have frequently been arrested without a warrant, in many cases not even by the National Police, but by paramilitary groups. Subsequently, they are moved from their hometowns to Managua, without informing family members or presenting charges. They are then often subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, beaten and/or tortured, held illegally in the Chipote jail or made to await trial in facilities for convicted prisoners.

Their cases are then presented to the courts in a context in which the neutrality and independence of the Ministerio Publico and Fiscalia (Prosecutor’s Office) is absolutely questionable. Charges are often inflated and aggravated, and openly pro-government judges appointed to the cases. Witnesses presented to aid the prosecutor’s case are most often police and party members. In all, a conviction is almost always already fixed before the trial even begins.

Political prisoner Edwin Carcache [now released] when he participated in the massive marches that demanded the stepping down of the government and the liberation of political prisoners in 2018. Photo courtesy.

Who are the political prisoners? 

Political prisoners imprisoned during and after the 2018 protests can roughly be divided into four different ‘groups’ or categories of accused/convicted persons:

Student leaders Byron Estrada and Nahiroby Olivas [now released] during their first hearing. Together with other leaders of the Leonese student movement ’19 April’, Byron and Nahiroby are being processed for ‘terrorism’ and multiple other crimes, such as larceny and the destruction of public property. Photo courtesy CC Cajina.

First, student leaders, peasant leaders and leaders of local 19 April movements. These are largely considered the ‘faces’ of the protests and face high sentences for organizing ‘terrorist actions’, among which the erection of barricades and roadblocks. Among these are political prisoners such as Medardo Mairena (one of the leaders of the peasant movement), Amaya Coppens (one of the leaders of the 19 April student movement in Leon), Christian Fajardo and Adilia Peralta (leaders of the 19 April movement of Masaya), and Irlanda Jerez (one of the leaders of the 19 April movement in Managua). Their charges for ‘terrorism’ are often inflated with additional charges for (attempted) murder, robbery, larceny, or destruction of public or private property, seeking convictions that exceed the 30-year maximum sentence for ‘terrorism’.

Presentation at Plaza del Sol (police headquarters, Managua) of six people suspected of erecting roadblocks in Matagalpa, dubbed ‘terrorists’ by the government. Photo courtesy Enrique Oporta.

Second, human rights defenders, students, and other young autoconvocado protesters. This is the largest group of political prisoners and includes dozens of cases like the four human rights defenders from Boaco, these three Managuan students, and these nine young autoconvocados from Tipitapa. They are often tried in groups and their sentences oscillate greatly, often between 5 and 25 years. The largest risk is for these prisoners to disappear out of view, as their names are not as sounded as those of the leaders. 

Third, scapegoats. These are largely convicted for aggravated charges of murder and ‘terrorism’ to exorbitantly high sentences for crimes they absolutely did not commit. These include cases like that of Brandon Lovo and Glenn Slate, convicted for the murder of journalist Angel Gahona, who was taken down with a single shot to the head while conducting a Facebook Livestream. The only people in Gahona’s direct surroundings were police (even Gahona’s wife has said she believes Lovo and Slate are absolutely innocent). Another striking case is that of Carlos Alberto Bonilla, convicted to 90 years in prison for allegedly killing a police officer and engaging in ‘terrorism’. In most of these cases, legal irregularities are rampant.

Brandon Lovo and Glenn Slate [now released] were convicted of the murder on journalist Angel Gahona. One of the most contested and clear cases of government scapegoating. Photo courtesy CC Cajina.
First hearing of Carlos Brenes [now released]. Photo courtesy CC Cajina.

Finally, government critics. These largely include former FSLN (Sandinista party) members and historical figures, who face inflated charges along the line of protest leaders, aggravated by their ‘betrayal’ of the party. In most cases, these are people who have been critical for years, have not participated very actively in the protests, but are ‘gotten rid of’ by implying them in the organization of the protests (as the ‘brains’). They often face very high sentences. An example of this category is the case of Carlos Brenes, a former FSLN-guerrilla, coronel and co-founder of the Sandinista Army, who has been very critical of the institution for at least the past 25 years. Having read a statement of solidarity with the protesters, and being from Monimbo (Masaya), he is charged by the police for leading the ‘terrorist operation’ against the police of Masaya.

Under the blog tab ‘News & Prisoner Profiles’ you can find more information about individual cases.

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