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Ortega regime accused of criminalizing civil society in Nicaragua

More than 300 Nicaraguans were stripped of their citizenship by authorities in February, including students, journalists, literary figures and human rights defenders.

(CN) — Human rights organizations have condemned Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega’s regime following the decision to strip hundreds of people of their citizenship.

On Feb. 15, the Managua Court of Appeals ruled 94 citizens would lose their citizenship, political rights, and even their property. The decision was adopted without a prior trial and targets the country’s civil society, with the individuals including students, academics, journalists such as Carlos Fernando Chamorro and Wilfredo Miranda, literary figures such as Gioconda Belli and Sergio Ramírez, and human rights defenders such as Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia.

The state court, which is one of the highest appellate courts in the country, described these individuals as “fugitives” and “traitors” due to their opposition to the increasingly authoritarian Ortega government.

On Feb. 9, state officials released 222 of its 245 opposition prisoners, stripped them of their citizenship and deported them to the U.S. This followed the National Assembly’s fast-track approval of a reform to the constitution regarding nationality and the creation of a new law that can strip Nicaraguans of their citizenship.

“Since the court’s decision on Feb. 15, proceedings to seize their property, in particular real estate or bank accounts, have begun,” said Jimena Reyes, director for the Americas at the International Federation of Human Rights. “An emblematic example is that of the journalist Sofia Montenegro. The authorities have not only confiscated her apartment but the whole building, asking the owners of the other apartments to begin paying rent to the state.” And those among the 94 that had received a pension have now stopped receiving it. 

“Countries including Spain and Chile have offered citizenship to those that have now become stateless,” said Reyes.

Observers have called the move by the Ortega regime a violation of human rights. “The arbitrary withdrawal of nationality, which leaves Nicaraguans stateless, is a very serious violation of human rights” Reyes said. “The action by the Court of Appeals continues a clear path of criminalization and harassment of civil society in Nicaragua by the Ortega-Murillo regime.”

Multiple human rights organizations have publicly condemned the actions of the government. The International Federation of Human Rights published a joint press release with the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, whose founder, Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia, remains in the country.

The letter describes a “new wave of repression by the Ortega-Murillo regime, which constitutes a clear attack against civil society and human rights defenders in the country.” Stripping the citizenship of human rights figures like Nuñez is "a grave and targeted attempt at silencing what's left of a civil society in the country.”

The government’s actions in February sparked indignation among the world’s literary community, who published an open letter titled They are and will be Nicaraguan. Among the signatories were Salman Rushdie, Siri Hustvedt, Orphan Pamuk, Leila Guerriero, Carmen Aristegui, Elena Poniatowska, and Mario Vargas Llosa. The letter expressed concern over the recent actions by the government. “We stand in solidarity with Nicaraguan citizens who have been stripped of their nationality,” the letter reads.

“These facts violate the fundamental human right to have a nationality and the prohibition of arbitrarily depriving any human being of it,” the letter says. “We urge the international community to take an active role in all actions that may lead to the cessation of abuses and human rights violations.” The signatories also urged “the Nicaraguan government to stop the repression against its people.”

Many of the 94 condemned citizens had already fled the country and were declared fugitives, such as the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, who is exiled in the U.S. The largest exile community is in Costa Rica, where the Nicaraguan sociologist Elvira Cuadra fled in 2018.

“Both events mark a turning point in the Nicaraguan political scene because they represent a further escalation in the level of state violence, but also because it opens a window to the strengthening of opposition forces,” Cuadra wrote for Dialogo Politico

“The release of political prisoners generated a wide feeling of relief and joy among all Nicaraguans because it is widely known that during their captivity they were exposed to torture and ill-treatment,” she added. “The opposition, although hit and weak by the wave of repressive begun since 2021, has remained active both inside and outside the country and has several initiatives underway for the formation of a broad front.”

In the U.S., although President Joe Biden said that he welcomed the arrival of deported political prisoners including opposition leaders Juan Sebastian Chamorro and Felix Maradiaga, his administration said on Feb. 21 that it will deny asylum to migrants who show up at the southern border without first seeking protection in a country they passed through.

These restrictions mirror the attempts of the Trump administration to ban asylum for people entering the U.S. outside an official port of entry. Trump’s attempts were ultimately blocked when the Supreme Court declined to stay a federal judge’s order blocking the ban.

Those affected by Biden’s decision will include Nicaraguans, who have increasingly fled their country for the U.S. Between 2021 and 2022, more than 304,000 Nicaraguans were documented at the U.S. border by Customs and Border Protection officers.

The number of U.S. Customs and Border Protection encounters of Nicaraguans between 2021 and 2022. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection via Courthouse News Service)

According to the Migration Data Portal, around 720,000 Nicaraguans live abroad, around 10% of the country's population. Around 300,000 live in neighboring Costa Rica, with close to 200,000 having sought refugee status since 2018. The refugees make up 11.5% of Costa Rica’s population and is putting pressure on the country’s ability to receive them.

In 2022 alone, around 330,000 Nicaraguans were forced to leave their country of birth, according to Manuel Orozco, a researcher at the Inter-American Dialogue and specialist in migration.

Courthouse News correspondent James Francis Whitehead is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Categories:Criminal, Government, International

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