President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua – faced with civilian opposition at home and increasing condemnation from abroad – appears determined to prove that the proverbial sword is in fact more powerful than the pen.
Reporters for an online news site are writing their stories in secret locations. Editors of the country’s only 24-hour news network have been jailed. And employees of a major human rights organization have escaped into the mountains.
“I am 80 years old, and I am in no condition to go up into the mountains, not even to save my life,” said Vilma Núñez, a well-known lawyer who founded the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.
In the past few weeks, President Daniel Ortega’s forces have launched a wave of repression against civil society groups and journalism outlets that is choking off what little remains of democracy in this Central American country.
The government recently stripped nine civil society groups of their legal standing and seized their assets. News organizations critical of the Ortega administration have been closed, and some editors have been charged with crimes including conspiracy to commit terrorist acts.
“The government is trying to shut down all political dissidence and impose a reign of fear and terror, targeting its opponents,” said Paulo Abrão, director of the human rights commission of the Organization of American States (OAS).
The crackdown marks a new stage in the government’s efforts to destroy a protest movement that emerged in April and swelled into giant demonstrations demanding Ortega’s resignation. Police and paramilitary forces responded by opening fire on protesters. According to the OAS commission, 324 people have been killed in the uprising. The government puts the toll at 198, including 21 police deaths.
In December, a panel of independent investigators named by the OAS concluded that the actions by Nicaragua’s security forces could be considered crimes against humanity. They called for an investigation of Ortega, noting that the coordinated, sustained campaign by the national police “could only be explained by a decision taken by the maximum authorities” of the country. They also urged an investigation of the police leadership and judiciary.
Authorities kicked the investigators out of the country shortly before the report was issued. The government responded to its conclusions by accusing the investigators of ignoring deadly violence by protesters. It also alleged that they were “echoing the policies of the Government of the United States of America against Nicaragua.”