United Nations report says Ortega and Murillo committed crimes against humanity

An investigation by the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua finds the presidential couple and government officials culpable of the repression that began with the 2018 crackdown

Wilfredo Miranda Aburto
El presidente de Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, y su esposa, la vicepresidenta Rosario Murillo
Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, in Managua, on September 15, 2020.NICARAGUA'S PRESIDENCY (Reuters)

After a year-long investigation, the United Nations (UN) Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua (GHREN) concluded that Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo and seven government institutions committed crimes against humanity in Nicaragua since 2018 when social protests were violently repressed by police and paramilitary groups.

The UN report was released on March 2 in Geneva, Switzerland and presents sufficient evidence to initiate criminal legal proceedings. An earlier Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) investigation limited itself to reporting that crimes against humanity may have been committed. The UN report provides proof and attributes specific responsibility to Nicaraguan government officials ranging from the presidential couple to the mid-level officials who ordered their forces to “go all out,” triggering a lethal wave of violence that killed 355 people between April and September 2018.

Angela María Buitrago, a former prosecutor in Colombia and one of GHREN experts, said, “One of the principal findings of our report is that the repressive violence that started in 2018 led to other profound impacts. The IACHR group was given only a short time for its investigation, so it focused on the deaths and murders. Although it provided some context and examples of abolished civic spaces, it does not delve into responsibility and accountability, a key aspect of our mandate.”

“These violations and abuses are being perpetrated in a widespread and systematic manner for political reasons, constituting crimes against humanity,” said the UN report, “and [the experts have] reason to believe that authorities at the highest level of the State structure, including President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, as well as high-ranking members of the National Police leadership, participated in the commission of the crimes documented in the report.” In addition, the GHREN experts found that senior commanders and chiefs of the Police and the National Penitentiary System knew or “should have known about the crimes and violations committed by their subordinates, but did not adopt preventive and punitive measures, despite having the effective capacity to do so.”

A call to the international community

GHREN chairperson Jan-Michael Simon compared the situation in Nicaragua to the violence and persecution in Europe during the 1930s. “Unfortunately, all the elements you see in Nicaragua were also in evidence at the Nuremberg trials,” he said. The experts recommend exercising universal jurisdiction, a legal principle enabling any country or international organization to initiate criminal proceedings against the Nicaraguan state.

The GHREN says it applied the “reasonable grounds to believe” standard of proof. Although this threshold is lower than the standard for establishing responsibility in criminal proceedings, it is “sufficient to justify further investigation.” Even though Nicaragua has not ratified or recognized the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court, the report called on the international community to follow Argentina’s example and initiate legal action against the individuals responsible for the documented violations.

“Any country with a definition of crimes against humanity in its criminal penal code can initiate legal action,” Jan-Michael Simon told EL PAÍS. “Many countries, including UN members, recognize the Rome Statute, which has a jurisdiction clause that enables prosecution under the principle of universality, regardless of the victim’s nationality.”

In light of its findings, the UN group called on the international community to “extend sanctions to institutions and individuals involved in the commission of violations and crimes under international law.” It also recommends that government and multilateral aid projects prioritize actions to improve Nicaragua’s human rights situation. In addition, the report considers the regime’s stripping of the nationality of 317 political opponents, journalists and dissidents to be extremely serious.

The report identified a pattern of extrajudicial executions carried out by the National Police and members of pro-government armed groups during the 2018 protests and said they and National Penitentiary System agents committed acts of physical and psychological torture, including sexual and gender-based violence. The report also found that the Nicaraguan government used arbitrary detention to silence critics. It violated the right to participate in public affairs and freedom of expression, opinion, association, assembly, conscience and religion. There has been no political reaction in Managua, and the Ortega-Murillo regime refused to cooperate with the experts since it never recognized the UN mandate.

In March 2022, the UN Human Rights Council established the GHREN to investigate the abuses committed by the Ortega-Murillo regime since April 2018. The resolution to create the expert group was presented by Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia, Canada, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Paraguay and was approved by a 20-to-7 vote. The GHREN report was released just weeks before the fifth anniversary of the April 2018 protests that triggered the police and paramilitary repression that currently characterizes the dictatorship in Nicaragua.

“The regime cannot withstand the pressure”

Dora María Téllez, the legendary “Comandante Dos” of the Sandinista revolution, is one of the political prisoners exiled and stripped of citizenship in February. In a videoconference
appearance before the European Parliament, Téllez said her expulsion to the United States along with 200 other prisoners shows that the Ortega-Murillo regime is feeling the international pressure and has failed in its strategy of “exchanging hostages for [government] legitimacy.”
In the European Parliament session on Central American relations, Téllez said Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo “view us as hostages to be exchanged for legitimacy, for the recognition of a government based on the electoral fraud of November 2021.” The expulsion of these political prisoners has “opened a door” for a future democratic transition, said Téllez, “and is an indicator of the failure of that strategy... That is very important because it shows the regime cannot withstand the pressure.”

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