MANAGUA – International criticism of Nicaragua's government grew on Tuesday after another night of arrests in Managua. Fifty-nine countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council signed onto a statement expressing concern over arbitrary arrests and the restriction of fundamental rights.
Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that since her last report on the situation in Nicaragua in February, “my office has observed a worrisome and rapid deterioration in the human rights situation."
"This makes more distant the possibility that Nicaraguans are able to fully exercise their political rights in the Nov. 7 elections,” said Bachelet.
Also Tuesday, the international organization Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the politically motivated arrests in recent weeks of nearly 20 potential political candidates, prominent businessmen, former government officials and political leaders.
The organization called on the U.N. Security Council to invoke Article 99 of its charter “to raise this issue in the U.N. Security Council and present it as a growing crisis involving grave human rights abuses, which could undermine stability in the region.”
Daniel Ortega is seeking a fourth consecutive term as president and has been systematically clearing his path of potential challengers through arrests for alleged crimes against the state. The government had already significantly reduced the public space for opposition to maneuver through repressive laws and intimidation.
“High-profile arrests and other serious human rights violations against critics appear to be part of a broader strategy to eliminate political competition, stifle dissent, and pave the way for President Daniel Ortega’s re-election to a fourth consecutive term,” Human Rights Watch said.
Late Monday, Nicaragua police announced they had placed former first lady María Fernanda Flores Lanzas, wife of ex-President Arnoldo Aleman, under house arrest for alleged crimes against the state.
There was no mention of Aleman or his whereabouts. The police statement said she would remain under guard while the allegations against her were investigated.
Also Monday, sports journalist Miguel Mendoza was arrested and journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, son of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, said via Twitter that police had raided his home. He demanded they respect the well-being of his sister-in-law and others with her.
“They will not be able to silence journalism,” he wrote. Police raided the offices of his online news outlet Confidencial in May and the government seized the outlet’s old offices in December 2018.
Earlier, Nicaraguan writer and former Vice President Sergio Ramírez said there was no chance of free and fair elections in Nicaragua and that the opposition should refuse to participate in voting that would only legitimize Ortega’s victory.
Last week, most members of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States condemned the Nicaraguan government’s actions and called for the immediate release of political prisoners. On Monday, Argentina and Mexico, two countries who abstained from the vote, recalled their ambassadors from Nicaragua for consultation over the developments.
The U.S. Treasury Department this month imposed sanctions on Ortega’s daughter and a top army official, as well as several others close to the president.
Nicaragua Foreign Affairs Minister Denis Moncada said in an interview with Venezuelan television that Nicaragua was no one's colony and would not accept foreign interference. He said the people arrested in recent days were not presidential candidates, but rather “leaders of nongovernmental organizations that receive financing from the United States and European Union and intend to destabilize the country.”
“The gravity and intensification of the Ortega government’s brutal crackdown on critics and members of the opposition in recent weeks requires a redoubling of international pressure,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
The organization's report noted that more than 108,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country since street protests began in April 2018 and were violently put down by the government. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that 328 people were killed and some 2,000 wounded. Ortega has maintained those protests were a foreign-backed coup attempt.
Most of the arrests in recent weeks have been related to allegations that opposition figures accepted foreign financing for activities against the government.
Even before the latest crackdown, more than 100 political prisoners were already jailed in Nicaragua, the report said, documenting three cases of women who suffered assault and sexual aggression during their imprisonment.
In developing the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 53 people in Nicaragua, including 46 activists, lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and opposition figures who were victims of harassment of arbitrary detention. It said the government had not responded to its request for information on those cases.
“There is virtually no chance Nicaraguans can exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, nor to vote and run for public office, if they are seen as opposing the ruling party,” Vivanco said.