Washington, DC—On November 14, Nicaraguan police detained 13 people who had provided water to a group of hunger strikers demanding the release of family members they say are unjustly imprisoned by the government. Judicial authorities are reportedly preparing to press charges against the 13 activists, accusing them of transporting weapons and intending to commit terrorist acts. Many of the activists detained on November 14 are members of the “National Blue and White Unity” coalition, which brings together a range of 92 opposition groups in Nicaragua.
The seemingly growing organization of opposition coalitions in Nicaragua is increasing pressure on the Ortega government, which has responded by persistently repressing civil society and committing human rights abuses—including extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests and detentions—since the outbreak of protests in April 2018. With public demonstrations deemed illegal and with an estimated 138 political prisoners (according to the opposition) still in jail and reportedly facing trumped-up charges, the detention of activists seeking to aid hunger strikers further demonstrates the Ortega government’s heavy-handed attempts to muzzle any form of peaceful dissent.
In the past two weeks, there has been increasingly frequent crackdowns on members of the opposition attempting to organize peacefully in collaboration with the Catholic Church. On Thursday, November 14, a group of ten mothers of political prisoners began a hunger strike inside a church in the town of Masaya, south of capital city Managua. Nicaraguan police then surrounded the church and cut off electricity and flow of vital supplies, including insulin for priest Edwin Román. Father Román and the other strikers were taken out of the church by ambulance on November 22; he and three other participants in the hunger strike remain hospitalized, but stable.
In solidarity, another group of mothers began a hunger strike inside the Managua Cathedral on November 18. They were forced to flee the next day, after pro-Ortega militants entered the cathedral, threatened the safety of those striking, and committed “acts of desecration,” the Archdiocese of Managua said.
In another incident, hostile pro-Ortega crowds made an unsuccessful attempt to enter another church in a separate parish in Masaya. Outside of that church, journalists, including an international member of the press, were assaulted, and one young man was reportedly taken by police.
It is critical that the Nicaraguan government condemn rather than encourage these attacks against peaceful anti-government protestors. The government should release the activists detained for attempting to support hunger strikers and drop any unfounded charges against them. Additionally, the government should cease to arbitrarily detain citizens who criticize their government through peaceful means, and should move to release all those detained without due process in connection to the protests. The Nicaraguan government must respect the rights of all Nicaraguans, including fundamental rights to freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and peaceful protest.
For several years the country’s ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN), has consolidated its power over the executive branch, Congress, the police, and the national army. When protests demanding President Ortega’s resignation broke out in 2018, the government responded with violent, widespread oppression, as documented in a report by an independent group of investigators commissioned by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Since then, pro-government militias have remained active in the country, harassing peaceful protesters, killing journalists, and forcing thousands to flee abroad. President Ortega has amassed an enormous amount of unchecked power that has allowed him to continue to contain the opposition through targeted repression and intimidation.
Moving ahead, the Ortega administration must make concrete commitments to uphold the right to protest and guarantee justice for violence committed against peaceful dissenters. Key actors in the international community—including U.S. Members of Congress, international human rights bodies, and foreign governments—must forcefully condemn the Nicaraguan government’s repression of peaceful dissent, and continue to pressure for accountability and an end to impunity for human rights violations that occurred in the context of the protests. Critically, any potential solution to the disputes between the Ortega government and the opposition groups must include elections that are internationally monitored and whose terms are agreed upon by those involved.
This post was updated on November 25 to correct an error: the name of the town where mothers of political prisoners went on hunger strike on November 14, and where hostile pro-Ortega crowds later made an unsuccessful attempt to enter a church, is Masaya, not Mayasa.