“The concentration of power in the executive branch has facilitated Nicaragua’s transformation into a de facto police state in which the government has installed a regime of suppression of all freedoms,” Fiorella Melzi, Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI, in Spanish) coordinator of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), said on December 6, 2021.
Melzi made the statement during the webinar “Nicaragua: Portrait of the Institutional Capture in the Americas,” organized by the Center for Justice and International Law, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Human Rights Collective Nicaragua Never Again, and the American Jewish World Service.
According to Melzi, the Ortega-Murillo regime exerts control and surveillance of the citizenry through state and parastate security institutions with the support of the other state powers. “There is no system of checks and balances in the country, since all institutions respond to the decisions of the Executive,” Melzi said.
For the past three years, IACHR has been alerting the international community to serious human rights violations in Nicaragua. “[Violations include] harassment and repression against anyone considered to be an opponent of the government, arbitrary use of lethal and non-lethal force, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, raids, threats, retaliation, and mistreatment,” Melzi said.
According to the expert, the Ortega-Murillo regime also resorts to criminalization through hundreds of judicial processes “under unfounded or disproportionate charges, such as terrorism or organized crime.”
In the seven months leading up to the November 2021 general elections, the Ortega-Murillo regime intensified repression with the arbitrary detention and criminalization of more than 30 people under unfounded charges and without due judicial guarantees, Melzi said. Seven of these people were presidential candidates who remain deprived of their freedom. Melzi also denounced the harassment of leaders of social and student movements, in addition to the frequent limitations on the independent press.
Concentration of power
According to IACHR, the concentration of power in Nicaragua began in 1999, with a pact between the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN, in Spanish), led by Ortega, and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC, in Spanish), headed by then President Arnoldo Alemán. Through the so-called “Alemán-Ortega Pact,” both political forces negotiated a series of agreements to ensure control of the Executive branch and the subordination of the other branches of the government.
“[The pact] instituted a two-party structure with the aim of taking over the highest government posts,” the IACHR said in the report Nicaragua: Concentration of Power and the Undermining of the Rule of Law, published on October 25, 2021. The concentration of power by the Executive intensified in 2007, when Ortega assumed his second term, and was consolidated by the repression of social protests that began in April 2018.
In October 2021, MESENI found that the repression of the protests resulted in at least 328 deaths, with 1,614 people deprived of liberty, 150 students expelled, more than 405 health professionals dismissed, and more than 103,600 Nicaraguans exiled, the organization said in its report. “These actions came about with the support of different state institutions: the General Assembly, the […] Judicial Branch (especially the Supreme Court of Justice), and the Supreme Electoral Council,” Melzi said in her presentation.
The agreement between the FSLN and the PLC solidified thanks to constitutional, electoral, and legal reforms that violated the principle of separation of powers, the IACHR said. In 2010, for example, the Supreme Court allowed Ortega to run for president in the 2011 elections, despite a constitutional ban on reelection.
In 2014, the ruling FSLN majority in Nicaragua’s National Assembly approved a constitutional reform that enabled indefinite presidential reelection. The reform, approved by 64 votes to 25, also gave the president the power to issue decrees with the force of law, the BBC reported at the time.
“The OAS’ General Assembly [Organization of American States] has indicated that it is essential to take measures to promote free and fair elections in Nicaragua,” Melzi said. “None of the measures that the OAS General Assembly proposed have been implemented,” she concluded.