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Nicaragua: Where Ortega criticism can mean torture

Sandra Weiss
August 19, 2018

As protests against President Daniel Ortega enter their fourth month, the scars of the bloody government crackdown are as fresh as ever for students and doctors, priests and musicians. Sandra Weiss reports from Managua.

A protester holds a Nicaraguan flag
Image: Reuters/O. Rivas

We had to postpone our meeting twice. The first time it was because gunmen in civilian clothes — auxiliary police officers according to President Daniel Ortega; paramilitaries from the point of view of opposition critics — detained and robbed the author of this piece. The second time it was because the police were conducting raids to try and find the leaders behind the protests of the past weeks. It is only on the third attempt that we both make it to our meeting place in a cafe.

Gabriela looks around nervously. The 21-year-old student studying social work has been out of jail for two weeks. Paramilitaries had intercepted her at a roadblock, she recounts, and held her for three days, beating her, torturing her, and scratching her skin with knives. Three of them raped her, she says. She recounts how she had to undress and how she wasn't given anything to eat. She never saw her tormentors, only heard them. They kept a hood over her head the whole time, she explains.

Life under threat

"Who are your bosses? Who paid you?" they wanted to know. Gabriela didn't give anything away. She explains that before the arrest, she had time to break her cellphone and destroy the chip. She believes she is now nevertheless on the black list of government opponents. She tells how her tormentors ordered her to leave Nicaragua if her life is dear to her. Gabriela doesn't want to and has now gone underground.

She has come to the meeting with a business student, Leddy. He was arrested by the actual police, but the 20-year-old didn't fare any better. They crushed his fingers with their boots, tortured him with burning cigarettes, tore the piercing out of his eyebrow and forced him to sing songs of praise to Ortega.

A protester walks between flaming tires
The protests, which originally opposed proposed social reforms, expanded into a challenge to Ortega's presidencyImage: picture alliance / Alfredo Zuniga/AP/dpa

The bruises have now almost disappeared, but the scars are still fresh. Everything happened so fast: The initial spirit of optimism, the occupation of the university, the defense against paramilitaries who shot at stone throwers with machine guns. Since May, the two students have manned the barricades of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), a state university where many violent clashes have taken place. They have been calling for democracy, the rule of law, and for the 72-year-old authoritarian socialist, Ortega, to finally step aside and schedule transparent, internationally recognized elections.

The armed Sandinista revolution brought Ortega to power in 1979. Now, a peaceful protest threatens to topple him. The demonstrators, he argues, are not students at all but right-wing thugs. As protesters have continued to challenge his power, he has responded with brutal force, just as the right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza once did against the Sandinista rebels, Ortega a leader among them. 

Read more: Nicaragua 2.0: Will history repeat itself?

Discharged doctors

Javier Pastora Membreno worked for 32 years as the head of surgery and a professor of medicine at the state hospital in the city of Leon. He built partnerships worldwide and organized free operations for the needy. Two weeks ago, the 55-year-old was fired, with a day's notice. The standard letter he received from the hospital director said, "We will no longer be requiring your services."

Pastora wanted to know whether there had been complaints, or whether something was wrong with his work. No, the director replied, but he had taken part in demonstrations and was a "destabilizing factor."

"I'm not even allowed to set foot in the hospital anymore," says Pastora bitterly.

Around 50 doctors across the country have suffered the same treatment. Their offence? Being critics of the government and having provided medical care to injured demonstrators.

"That's my medical obligation," says Pastora, who is now filing a class action suit with others who have been affected. He admits that they have no chance of success. "The justice system is controlled by Ortega. But after exhausting the national legal system we want to appeal to the international courts, where we'll hopefully find justice."

A demonstrator holds up a sign reading Justice in Spanish
Nicaraguans are demanding justice after Ortega's brutal repression of demonstrationsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Zuniga

Critics defamed as terrorists

Pastora is well-known and has a large network of supporters. Others are left to themselves in dealing with the situation. Louis Herrera, a parking lot attendant, was dismissed by his boss because he went to the protests and was filmed and recognized by government informers. He is now begging for money on the street. "This government has to go. It's hurting the country," he complains on the sidelines of a protest march in Managua.

Father Edwin Roman, who converted his parsonage in the city of Masaya into a makeshift hospital for the injured during the protests, had to leave the town for a while after receiving death threats. "Whoever is young, a student, a doctor or a priest is considered a criminal by this government," he said following his return to the city.

Read more: Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega slams Catholic bishops as allies of 'coup plotters'

Musician Guillermo Norori was nominated for a Grammy in 2010. Today he has no engagements and bakes tortillas at home, delivering them by motorcycle. "The state never liked us and has always only hired musicians who are loyal to the party line, but in the past we had private support for productions or were booked for concerts," he says. "That's all been reduced to zero." Some clients are afraid; others no longer have money because of the economic crisis. "Because many musicians wrote protest songs and produced them privately, they ended up on black lists, were arrested or had to leave the country," says Norori.

The list of government opponents is long, and according to Denis Darce of Nicaragua's Permanent Commission on National Human Rights, the complaints against them for terrorism and weapons possession are "assembly line productions without any legal foundation and without evidence." Unwelcome Ortega critics are supposedly accused of fictitious crimes, while 30 documented cases of police torture that the commission reported are not being processed. According to Darce, the aim is to intimidate citizens and criminalize protest. "We live in an unjust state," he says.

Daniel Ortega speaks into a microphone
Ortega came to power after the right-wing dictator Somoza was toppled. Meanwhile, he has grown increasingly authoritarian. Image: Reuters/O. Rivas

Critical press in the crossfire

It is unclear whether this repression will work out for Ortega, who is fighting to hold on to power. "It is a short-term victory at a high price," opposition politician Edmundo Jarquin points out. "Ortega has lost his legitimacy, plunged the country into an economic crisis and is a destabilizing factor in the eyes of the international community."

The media, where such opinions may still be expressed, are equally targets of repression. The news channel 100% Noticias, which has been covering the protests extensively since they began in April, has added a black ribbon to the screen during its programs to represent the 317 people who have been killed. The station was recently attacked by masked people and had its windows smashed. The director was also threatened.

Read more: Nicaragua's Gioconda Belli wins prize for free speech activism

Carlos Fernando Chamorro, director of the independent media group Confidencial, has also been caught in the crossfire between the government and its supporters. His journalists were beaten up by hooded people and a camera was stolen. He himself has been vilified as a putschist. For Chamorro, whose father was shot by Somoza's henchmen in 1978, these days of terror are deja vu. When asked if he is afraid, he answered with a sentence that his father said to a journalist shortly before being murdered: "Yes, but everyone is master of their own fears."

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