1. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has continued to observe carefully the evolution of human rights in Nicaragua. In addition to the special report concerned with that country in 1981, the Report on the Situation of Human Rights of a Sector of the Nicaraguan Population of Miskito Origin was also prepared in this period. The IACHR also considered the status of human rights in Nicaragua in its Annual Reports of 1981-1982 and 1982-1983. In these reports, the Commission referred specifically to observance of the right to life, to freedom of expression, to personal freedom and security, to due process, to religious freedom and to political rights. The object of this report is to update the Commission’s information on these matters.
2. In its 1982-1983 Annual Report, the IACHR recalled the Resolution of June 23, 1979 of the Seventeenth Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. That instrument, in its preamble recognized that “the solution to the serious problem is up to the people of Nicaragua” and established the bases which, in the opinion of the Meeting of Consultation, should lead to a settlement of the conflict. Two of these are relevant here:
3) Guarantee the respect for human rights of all Nicaraguans without exception.
4) Holding of free elections as soon as possible, that lead to the establishment of an authentically democratic government that guarantees peace, freedom and justice.
3. For its part, the Directorate of the Provisional Government of National Reconstruction, in the days prior to the victory, offered a “Plan to Achieve Peace” in which it committed itself, before the American States, to hold free elections so that all of its people could proceed to elect municipal representatives, in a constitutional assembly and as the highest authorities of the country. Subsequently, by means of a communiqué of August 23, 1980 the Directorate of the Government of Nicaragua declared that “Differences and pluralism will continue to be central elements of Sandinista democracy” and announced publicly that general elections would be held in 1985, with the electoral process beginning in January of 1984. In accordance with this position, the Government of Nicaragua issued Decree Nº 510 on September 10, 1980. On December 4 of 1983, that government declared, by decree, that the electoral process would begin on January 31, 1984, and that elections would be held on November 4th.
Last July 19, on the event of the anniversary celebration of the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, a partial lifting of the prevailing state of emergency was announced, which was put into effect by government decree on August 6. This measure maintains restrictions only on individual freedoms and the rights of detainees with respect to behavior considered in Articles 1 and 2 of Decree Nº 1074, related to crimes against public security, to the disclosure of security or political secrets concerning defense and international relations, to crimes against public institutions or necessary objects for defense, to crimes against public institutions or necessary objects for defense, to crimes linked to taking up arms against the Government or local authorities and sabotage against productive units, or public installations and services. The Commission cannot fail to mention in this regard that some procedural guarantees, such as the writ of amparo or habeas corpus, may not be suspended due to the impact they have on the protection of fundamental rights. The Commission notes, however, that the above-mentioned legal instrument does suspend those guarantees.
On November 4, 1983, the Government decreed an amnesty which covers persons who have abandoned the country and who wish to return to it, and it has been extended for successive periods up to November 4. That amnesty excluded from its provisions the officers of the dissolved National Guard and the leaders of armed groups who have requested the intervention of a foreign power, solicited or accepted funds from it or planned or led armed attacks against the Nicaraguan people or economy.
It should be noted in this regard that one of the conditions set forth by certain opposition parties for them to participate in the elections has been that of the initiation of a broad national dialogue which would include groups that have taken up arms against the Government. The Government has rejected this condition, claiming that in this case it is not a matter of representative political forces, but rather groups whose only strength comes from their sources of financing. In the course of the debate, a senior leader of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force discounted the possibility of holding a dialogue with the Government. That condition was subsequently withdrawn by the opposition parties.
4. For its part, the Bishop’s Conference of Nicaragua, in a pastoral letter issued at the end of Holy Week, stated the need for achieving national reconciliation by means of a dialogue that would include armed opposition groups, which provoked a harsh reaction from the Government and even from segments within the Church itself. On the heels of this incident, Father Luis Amado Peña was arrested, accused of carrying out counterrevolutionary activities, and ten foreign priests who participated in a march, led by the Archbishop of Managua in support of the above-mentioned priest, were expelled from the country.
These events have brought the relations of the Government with the Catholic Church to their lowest point. The Holy See has reiterated that it is necessary that the four priests who currently hold important political positions in the Government resign from office. An official delegation from Managua recently visited the Vatican in order to carefully study the various aspects involved in Church-State relations, but it is not yet possible to specify the concrete results of the meetings that they held.
5. The Democratic Coordinator, a grouping of most of the opposition parties, has also stressed the need to abstain from participation in the electoral process, since it believes that it is being held under conditions that do not guarantee the fairness of its results. Apart from excluding the leaders of armed groups or those linked to them, the leaders of these opposition parties believe that the electoral contest is distorted by the identification between the Sandinista National Liberation Front and the State, which grants the party disproportionate importance due to its ability to influence the population by means of measures achieved through control of power or access to the communications media which it controls directly or indirectly. The opposition parties also maintain that it is essential to achieve, as a prior condition to the elections, the effective independence of the judiciary and the observance of trade union freedoms and due process guarantees.
A further source of intense controversy in Nicaraguan society has been the establishment of the Patriotic Military Service, and the IACHR has received information that, on many occasions, young people who are ineligible under the very terms of the law that created the service have been drafted into it. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that this recruitment takes place not only for reasons of national defense but also as a means of political indoctrination of those drafted into the ranks of the army. Military service moreover appears to be a cause for emigration from Nicaragua.
It should also be noted that human rights organizations have alerted the IACHR toward the significant increase in the harassment of various political and union leaders by the security forces. Such harassment takes the form of more or less prolonged detentions, or accusations which later serve as the basis for convicting the accused of crimes such as vagrancy and drug abuse. In addition, it has been widely reported that important opposition leaders have been harassed by groups partisan to the Government.
There can be no doubt that the electoral process in Nicaragua is being carried out under exceptional circumstances. The scant democratic tradition of the political system of the country, the emotional impact of the arguments raised, the mobilization of the entire society on the basis of chosen positions that easily lead to polarization, and the adverse economic circumstances of Nicaragua, are elements that make up an extremely complex framework, within which both the Government and the opposition must make decisions that entail grave political risks for both.
6. Concerning the right to life, human rights organizations have continued to denounce violations, especially in the form of forced disappearances and as a result of the abuse of power by members of the security forces. The Commission has been able to verify that a large number of the denunciations referred to events that took place in the zones of conflict.
Other acts have been attributed to the security forces. Such is the case of the death that occurred when an army truck charged a religious procession. In this and other cases, the guilty have been tried and sentenced to long terms in prison; other cases, however, remain to be clarified and area source of deep concern to the IACHR.
7. With respect to physical integrity and personal security, denunciations have continued of torture or illegal punishment of detainees, and other forms of attack, such as the rape of women, committed by security force personnel. In these cases also, those found responsible have been punished, even though denunciations of certain illegal punishments are very frequent, particularly from persons who are detained for short periods in connection with their political activities.
8. With respect to the right to trial and due process, the concern of the IACHR centers on the trials carried out by the Anti-Somoza Courts. The Commission has already referred to these courts, and the numerous denunciations it has received confirmed the observations formulated at the time, with respect to the lack of objectivity of these courts. In the judgment of the IACHR, the procedures followed by the Anti-Somoza Courts give rise to serious doubts with respect to observance of the norms that guarantee due process. Taken together with the severe penalties that are applied to members of the political opposition, the Commission once again finds it necessary to emphasize to the Government of Nicaragua the need to apply control by the ordinary courts over the Anti-Somoza decisions.
One case in particular, due to its characteristics, has seriously impressed the Commission. It is the case of Mr. Antonio Rodríguez García, detained before traveling to give testimony to the IACHR in the case of his son, Professor Alejandro Rodríguez Prado, sentenced to thirty years in prison, by the Anti-Somoza Courts. Through a cable signed by its chairman, the Commission requested the Foreign Minister of Nicaragua to provide information, and the request was subsequently repeated. At the time of this report, the Government of Nicaragua has given no reply, thus denying the IACHR testimony to which it attached special importance.
Other cases that have been a source of special concern to the Commission are those of Silvio Robelo and of Alejandro Pereira Malespin, the first sentenced to thirty years, and the second to fifteen years of imprisonment by the Anti-Somoza Courts, for essentially political reasons.
The IACHR also considers that attention should be drawn to the case of numerous detainees holding release orders issued by a competent judge, but who are kept in prison for prolonged periods, with no reason given for the detention. Situations such as the above represent a violation of the right to personal freedom and to due process, and they must be remedied promptly to lend substance to the Nicaraguan Government’s statements concerning the independence and authority of the country’s judiciary. The Commission repeats, with respect to the right to a trial and to due process, that the remedy of habeas corpus or amparo may not be suspended as it has been in Nicaragua.
9. The right to religious freedom, in turn, has been affected by the situation described in connection with developments in the area of political rights. Although it is true that much of the friction between the Government and the churches arises from positions that are directly or indirectly linked to the political situation of the country, it is also true that statements by high government officials, official press statements, and the actions of groups under the control of the Government have gone beyond the limits within which political discussions should take place and have become obstacles to certain specifically religious activities.
The Commission is aware of the difficulty of drawing a clear line to separate the political from the religious, especially in extremely politicized situations such as that of Nicaragua. Hence, it exhorts the Government of that country to exercise the utmost restrain in managing its relations with religious groups, to safeguard freedom of conscience and worship that the Government has repeatedly stated it has decided to observe.
10. With respect to freedom of expression, it should be noted that until last August 6, restrictions on this right continued to be in place due to the state of emergency. On that date, as has already been mentioned, the right to freedom of expression was restored, in conjunction with the repeal on the same date of Decree Nº 512 which required prior censorship of economic information. One journalist, Mr. Luis Manuel Mora Sánchez, was detained and sentenced by the Anti-Somoza Courts pursuant to charges that his activities were damaging to the national security; according to recent information, that journalist has been released. During the period under consideration, the newspaper La Prensa continued to be subject to prior censorship; this situation was presumably changed after the month of August because of the election campaign. In practice, the Commission has been informed that certain restrictions still apply in this area.
11. In accordance with the information set forth in this report, the Commission considers that the calling of general elections by the Government of Nicaragua is a positive step and that it aims at the fulfillment of the commitments assumed by the Government, to the extent that the elections take place in keeping with the terms of Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which states:
1. Every citizen shall enjoy the following rights and opportunities:
a. to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
b. to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and by secret ballot that guarantees the free expression of the will of the voters; and
c. to have access, under general conditions of equality, to the public service of his country.
In the course of the electoral process, some restrictions have been lifted that were in place as a result of the state of emergency, while others criticized by the IACHR have been maintained.
In addition, the Commission has been able to verify that during the current electoral process, the Sandinista National Liberation Front has intensively used all of the resources made available to it by its holding of state power, which places it in an advantageous position with respect to other contenders. In this regard, the denounced harassment of political and union leaders is unacceptable. Furthermore, the IACHR considers that some candidates have been excluded, which could have been avoided if there had been greater flexibility, both on the part of the candidates and the Government.
The Commission hopes that the incidents that have taken place between the Government and the Catholic clergy may be resolved in a climate of dialogue and mutual respect, for the establishment of which the Government has particular responsibility. With respect to freedom of the press, the IACHR would be pleased to see the continuation and expansion of the loosening of restrictions that has taken place. The Commission also hopes that the Government will continue to investigate and punish those responsible for the serious violations that have been recorded of the right to life and personal security, which regrettably continue to be denounced, and which constitute a practice that should be definitively eradicated.
The right to personal freedom, to a fair trial and to due process give rise to serious concerns on the part of the IACHR. In this regard, it considers that it is necessary to introduce far-reaching remedies that will bring about an unrestricted observance of these rights, which at this time are significantly weakened.