GENEVA (22 February) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned Friday that if the arrests and convictions of people expressing dissenting opinions continue in Nicaragua, current efforts to start dialogue to solve the political and social unrest in the country could be seriously undermined.
Over the last six months, several hundred people - including peasant leaders, students, former politicians, journalists and civil society activists - have been arrested and held in pre-trial detention for long periods in connection with their alleged roles during the protests between April and July 2018.
Since December, amid rising concerns about the independence of the judiciary, various criminal courts in Managua have handed down guilty verdicts and extremely heavy sentences to a number of prominent opposition and community leaders, some of whom had cooperated with the UN and helped to highlight human rights abuses in Nicaragua.
Other people who have raised dissenting voices – including students, journalists, and a Supreme Court judge – have fled the country.
The proceedings in many of the cases that have reached the courts have been marked by a lack of transparency, issues relating to the credibility and independence of witnesses, undue restrictions on evidence and witnesses for the defence, and insufficient access of defendants to their lawyers.
"I am deeply concerned about the apparent lack of due process and increasing criminalization of dissent in Nicaragua," Bachelet said. "The arrest and jailing of opposition leaders, possibly in some cases as a reprisal for cooperating with the UN, clearly hinders the creation of an environment conducive to holding a genuine and inclusive dialogue – which the Government says it wants."
Prominent leaders convicted or sentenced in controversial circumstances in recent weeks include student leader Jonathan López, sentenced to five years and three months in prison; peasant leaders Medardo Mairena and Pedro Mena sentenced to 216 and 210 years in prison respectively; and former army officers Carlos Brenes and Tomas Maldonado for whom the Prosecutor is seeking sentences of 32 and 34 years.
"There needs to be an independent review of the convictions and sentences imposed on opposition leaders and activists who took part in the protests to ensure that their cases were properly handled at every stage by the police, prosecutors and judges," Bachelet said.
"I also call on the authorities to release all those deprived of their liberty in connection with their intrinsic right to peaceful protest and dissent, and to ensure people who cooperate with the UN and other human rights organizations do not face reprisals."
"It is a fundamental tenet of democracy that people from all parts of society should be able to engage freely in debate about the future of their country, without fear of arrest or intimidation," the UN Human Rights Chief said.