UN rights panel warns Nicaragua is being ‘stripped’ of critical voices

The panel estimated that 27 private universities have had their legal status revoked under President Daniel Ortega.

Nicaraguas President Daniel Ortega attends a two-day meeting with ALBA group representatives at the Revolution Palace in Havana, Cuba, December 14, 2021.
A panel of human rights experts has alleged the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega ‘seriously stifled’ perceived dissent, in violation of human rights law [File: Alberto Roque/Reuters pool]

A United Nations panel warned that the human rights situation in Nicaragua has worsened in the six months since it concluded that crimes against humanity had been committed in the Central American country.

“Today, the overall human rights situation has aggravated,” Jan-Michael Simon, the panel’s chair, wrote in a statement. “We observe an escalation of persecution of dissent by the government.”

The statement, presented to the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday, placed particular emphasis on the erosion of academic freedom, predicting dire consequences if the situation was left unchecked.

“Today, the university sector of Nicaragua as a whole no longer has independent institutions,” Simon wrote. “Nicaragua is being stripped of its intellectual capital and critical voices, leaving the country’s prospects and development on hold.”

The report comes less than a month after the government of President Daniel Ortega seized property and assets belonging to one of the country’s foremost academic institutions, the Central American University (UCA).

University officials said their institution had been accused of functioning as a “centre of terrorism”. But the UCA was only the latest in a string of higher-education institutions to have their property seized and academic independence quashed.

A total of 27 private universities, including the Jesuit-run UCA, have seen their legal status cancelled in recent years, the UN panel noted. Many now operate under the authority of the federal government.

“Many students are unable to carry on with their studies due to the lack of valid paperwork,” Simon explained. “Academic staff has been dismissed, had pension payments withheld, and have also been forced to leave their country.”

Simon and the two other members of the panel concluded that these violations against human rights “are perpetrated at the highest level of the State”, with the collaboration of government-controlled ministries and education councils.

A woman leaves the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in Managua, Nicaragua August 16, 2023. An entry way with the school's name can be seen behind her.
Earlier this year, the Nicaraguan government seized the property of the Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua [File: Stringer/Reuters]

Why target academics?

Ortega, a former revolutionary with the left-wing Sandinista movement, has been in and out of power since 1979, when he helped lead the overthrow of the Somoza family dictatorship.

He served a term as president in the 1980s. Then, after 17 years out of office, he was reelected in 2006 — and has remained in power ever since.

Critics have accused him of consolidating power under his command, dismantling Nicaragua’s fragile democracy along the way.

A turning point came in 2018, when anti-government protests broke out. Though they started as a response to social security cuts, the protests quickly evolved into a broad — and bloody — clash with the Ortega government. At least 355 people were killed.

Youth leaders were pivotal to the protest movement. Some used the universities themselves as locations to organise or barricade themselves against government forces.

In the years afterwards, the Ortega government took steps to dismantle these independent universities, passing reforms to cut their funding and bring them under state management.

“In our last report, we documented how students were murdered, illegally imprisoned, and tortured,” Simon wrote on Tuesday.

“Since then and to date, many have been expelled from their universities. They are among those deported, stripped of their nationality, and forced to leave their country.”

Reprisals abroad

But even abroad, the panel alleged that the Ortega government is exercising its authority to silence critics.

More than 300 citizens have been stripped of their nationality so far this year, the panel said, in violation of international law. They include many of the 222 political prisoners placed on a plane and flown into exile in February.

“They are being denied re-entry into their country and deprived arbitrarily of their nationality,” Simon wrote.

One of those exiled prisoners, Tamara Dávila, told Al Jazeera earlier this year that the loss of her citizenship had more of a practical toll than an emotional one.

“For me, it was like: I don’t care if they do that. I’m still a Nicaraguan woman,” Dávila said. “But in practical, day-to-day life, you need your documents for living these days.”

The UN panel also noted that the dissidents’ birth certificates had been eliminated, and assets like their homes had been seized, giving them little to return to.

“We also have information on how authorities threaten relatives in Nicaragua,” the panel added, describing a tactic used to muzzle overseas critics by intimidating the loved ones they left behind.

Panel recommendations

For critics who remain in the country, the panel said “daily threats and surveillance” have become the norm in recent months, with many living in “constant fear”.

“They need to report daily to the authorities and are being followed, photographed, and harassed in public and private spaces.”

The panel pointed to the example of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, a well-known critic of the Ortega government.

Leaders in Nicaragua’s Catholic Church had also been involved in the 2018 protests, acting as intermediaries and, in some cases, supporting the demonstrators.

Since then, church members say they have been harassed by pro-government forces. Álvarez criticised the 2018 crackdown on protesters and was ultimately arrested during a pre-dawn church raid in 2022 for allegedly “organising violent groups”.

In February, a court declared him a traitor to Nicaragua on state television.

The three-member UN panel, which was formed in March 2022 and saw its mandate renewed in April, has called on the international community to extend sanctions against Nicaraguan entities involved in the human rights violations.

It also pushed for countries to help Nicaraguan dissidents and students access the resources they need.

Meanwhile, it called for the Nicaraguan government to “allow unconditional access by neutral and independent verification bodies” to detention centres and other places where perceived dissidents were being held.

Source: Al Jazeera