Nicaragua’s Ultimate Sham Trial

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Reporters sit under a banner reading “Freedom for political prisoners” before a news conference of Nicaraguan exiles to denounce the electoral process in Nicaragua ahead of the country’s November 7 presidential and National Assembly elections, in San Jose, Costa Rica, November 4, 2021.
© 2021 REUTERS/Mayela Lopez

Tomorrow, Nicaragua’s courts are scheduled to hold a sham trial of seven government critics and opposition leaders, all arbitrarily imprisoned since June 2021. It’s the latest in a slew of trials of people detained on absurd charges on months on end.

This week’s trial epitomizes Nicaragua’s mockery of justice: A joint trial, with no due process, on charges of “conspiracy to undermine national integrity,” in most cases based solely on the defendants’ exercise of their right to free expression, that will most likely result in swift convictions for all.

Since February 1, at least 14 detainees have been found guilty of “undermining national integrity” during closed-door trials at “El Chipote” prison, rather than at public courthouses, as Nicaraguan law requires. Each trial has lasted just a few hours and has resulted in swift convictions and sentences of several years in prison.

Announcing the trials on January 31, the Attorney General’s Office called the detainees “criminals and thieves.” Authorities had suspended the trials in October 2021 without offering a clear reason.

Between May and November 2021, the government unleashed a wave of arbitrary arrests to pave the way for President Daniel Ortega’s reelection to a fourth consecutive term. Nicaraguan authorities arrested at least 40 critics, including student and business leaders, campesino representatives, defense lawyers, journalists, activists, and seven presidential candidates. More than 130 others were detained earlier and remain in detention.

Criminal proceedings have lacked basic due process. In many cases, detainees were held incommunicado for weeks or months at El Chipote, some in prolonged solitary confinement. When allowed visits, families described abusive conditions, including repeated interrogations and insufficient food.

On February 12, Hugo Torres died in detention. Torres had been arbitrarily arrested in early June and accused of “treason.”

Prosecutors have based serious accusations solely on claims that the accused had given interviews to media outlets, shared WhatsApp messages, participated in meetings, or signed letters calling for free elections, demanding international condemnation of government abuses, or expressing support for sanctions against Nicaraguan officials.   

These trials contribute to President Ortega’s mounting record of abuse. The United Nations Human Rights Council’s 49th session, which begins on February 28 in Geneva, presents an opportunity to send a powerful message to the Ortega-Murillo government that these human rights violations will not be tolerated. Governments should support a strong resolution on Nicaragua, demanding the release of all detainees subjected to arbitrary detention and prosecutions and establishing an independent mechanism to investigate rights violations. Given the lack of judicial independence of Nicaraguan courts, this would provide victims the possibility of being heard by an independent body with a chance to holding perpetrators accountable.

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