As the world faces a historic challenge, the government of President Daniel Ortega is flagrantly ignoring the recommendations of international human rights organisations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, putting at risk the health and lives of thousands of people in Nicaragua, said Amnesty International today. This comes on top of the grave human rights crisis that has ravaged the country for two years, resulting in the deaths of at least 328 people and the wounding of some 2,000 others, and forcing more than 100,000 people to flee the country.
“The Nicaraguan authorities’ response to the serious threat posed by COVID-19 shows once again that the Ortega administration is not taking any responsibility for the human rights of the Nicaraguan people, leaving them completely vulnerable,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
“Since 18 April 2018, the Ortega administration has made intimidation, impunity and forced exile common practice. It’s surprising that, after preventing and suppressing any form of social protest for the past two years, it is now promoting mass marches and gatherings, exposing the population to the pandemic.”
Local organisations have denounced the government’s failure to comply with the recommendations that international organisations have issued on COVID-19; on the contrary, it has taken actions that could put thousands of people in danger. In the middle of the pandemic, on 5 April, state institutions organised a public mass to begin the period of religious celebrations. On 6 April, state bodies promoted a public event to choose the 2020 Summer Queen in the department of Managua and on 12 April the Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism organised the Summer Music Fest 2020 in several locations.
The Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights has documented how the authorities promoted other mass events, such as parades and tourist activities, in March and April. In addition, before the schools broke up on 5 April for the Easter celebrations, the media reported that school staff pressured some parents into taking their children to educational centres.
The Pan American Health Organization has expressed concern about the Nicaraguan government’s response to COVID-19, which does not include social distancing measures, but rather calls for mass gatherings. It also described the prevention and control processes implemented by the authorities as inadequate.
Local groups continue to highlight the lack of information that the government has provided about the pandemic and public policies for prevention, diagnosis and containment. They have organised their own mechanisms for collecting and processing information on suspected cases of COVID-19 and are publicly disseminating information on measures to prevent contagion.
The Nicaraguan authorities must ensure that the population has immediate access to truthful, accurate and scientific information on the pandemic, as it develops, and on measures to prevent infection.
People deprived of their liberty among the most vulnerable to COVID-19
In the context of COVID-19, the situation of people detained in police stations or in the Nicaraguan prison system is particularly worrying. Hundreds of people have been jailed since April 2018 for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. As of 26 March 2020, and despite the government’s earlier commitment, local organisations reported that at least 70 of them remained in prison.
Amnesty International has confirmed the precarious conditions in Nicaraguan prisons with people who were detained for political reasons. Amaya Coppens, who was detained twice and deprived of her liberty in three different detention centres, described how overcrowding, lack of access to drinking water, insanitary conditions and lack of medical care are features of everyday life in detention centres. She reported that despite developing hypertension in prison, the prison authorities never supplied her with medicine.
“The government has shown widespread negligence in handling the pandemic. That’s why we fear an outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons, where conditions are subhuman. People detained for political reasons have been victims of human rights violations, but now, with the health crisis, they are in an even more vulnerable situation, which is why we must continue to insist that they are released and that there is a significant improvement in prison conditions,” said Amaya Coppens.
Local groups also report that families visiting detainees in some detention centres have not been allowed to bring in hygiene and cleaning products as part of the weekly packages they prepare for their relatives, as well as noting the lack of information and safety measures and action protocols in the penitentiary system’s response to COVID-19.
A relative of María Esperanza Sánchez García, the only woman in the group of 70 people detained for political reasons, who suffers from asthma and hypertension according to her family, told Amnesty International that she was “concerned about her state of health, as she is clearly exposed to catching the virus. The hygiene measures are not sufficient, as there is little space in the cells. There are 70 detainees held together in the same cell block where she is.”
Likewise, a lawyer representing people detained for political reasons told Amnesty International of his concerns for one of his defendants who suffers from serious health conditions and is at greater risk of COVID-19 infection because of the lack of preventive measures, which the state should be promoting. The lawyer said that, because of prison overcrowding, poor or non-existent medical care and limited access to drinking water, he asked the judicial authorities to authorize him to bring the people he is defending cleaning, protection and personal hygiene products and requested that one of the people he represents, who has respiratory diseases, await trial under house arrest. Three weeks later, the authorities have yet to respond to his requests.
On 8 April, in the context of the Easter celebrations, the Nicaraguan government announced the release of 1,700 people under the family gatherings regulations. However, local organisations have indicated that no one detained for political reasons was included in that group.
“The Ortega government has not only arbitrarily deprived dozens of people of their liberty, but it is also putting their health at risk by keeping them incarcerated and in precarious conditions. We reiterate once again our call to the authorities to immediately release all those detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.
Amnesty International also calls on the Nicaraguan authorities to guarantee water, sanitation, hygiene products and access to health care for the entire prison population, as well as a comprehensive public health policy that contributes to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and that meets the requirements established by international organisations that are experts in the field.