(CN) – Calling attention to a human rights crisis in Nicaragua, the United Nations says that the government’s response to widespread April protests has been to carry out extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released the report Wednesday, finding that more than 300 people have been killed and some 2,000 injured in the last four months.
Back in April, a pension-reform effort by the Nicaraguan government triggered protests across the country, which is one of the poorest in Latin America and the home of a multidecade revolution in the late 20th century.
The changes would cut 5 percent of people’s pensions while increasing their contribution rates, according to the U.N.’s report.
Most of those killed are men under 30, which the U.N. says “fits the profile” of many of the protesters, many of whom are college students and young professionals.
“We are trapped in our own country,” an anonymous university student and protest leader is quoted as saying in the report. “There are groups of armed hooded men at the border and even inside the universities. Every day some students are arrested and we don’t know what will happen after this.”
Wednesday’s report identifies the quashed protests as “the result of deep-rooted grievances,” which have come with a weakening of the country’s “institutional framework” and allegations of fraud, corruption and media censorship since President Daniel Ortega was elected in 2006.
Though Ortega is credited with leading the leftist Sandinista revolution that first took power in 1984, critics say corruption has worked its way into the Ortega administration, now in its third term.
The U.N.’s report says Nicaragua’s crackdown on public dissent has led to employment dismissals in several sectors, affecting human rights workers, lawyers, mothers of detainees, doctors, and firefighters.
The Nicaraguan government is also pressing charges of terrorism and organized crime against the protesters without giving them due process in the court system, according to the report.
Among torture inflicted on the protesters, the report says they suffer “burnings with Taser guns and/or cigarettes, use of barbed wires, beatings with fists and tubes and attempted strangulation – as well as psychological torture, including death threats.”
Nicaragua has acknowledged only 197 deaths as of late July, blaming them all on the actions of protesters, according to the report.
Human rights groups say the government has also mobilized armed groups known as fuerzas de choque, or “shock forces,” and turbas, or mobs, to use force against resisters. It formerly denied the existence of such groups and now gives them impunity, the report says.
“The human rights crisis in Nicaragua is ongoing, and authorities continue to resort to smear campaigns, threats of prosecution, arbitrary dismissals of civil servants and other forms of harassment or intimidation against individuals perceived as critical of the Government,” the report says. “Leaders of rural movements (Movimiento Campesino) and of student movements have been particularly targeted. This pattern has created a climate of fear and mistrust amongst the population.”
The United Nations condemns the violence and notes that from April to July its human rights arm received 23,000 refugee applications from Nicaraguans seeking safety in neighboring Costa Rica.
“I never imagined that I would be considered a political opponent of the government,” a physician told UN human rights workers. “And only because I did something so inherent to our responsibility as doctors as providing medical assistance to injured persons who were part of the protests.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein issued a statement on the report.
“Repression and retaliation against demonstrators continue in Nicaragua as the world looks away,” said Zeid. “The violence and impunity of these past four months have exposed the fragility of the country’s institutions and the rule of law, and created a climate of fear and mistrust.”
One point of the report is that the violence is not exclusive to one side: 22 police officers have been killed — sometimes brutally — and government officials and Sandinista party members attacked.
Though it does not condone the violence against these groups, the report says the abuses “do not legitimize in any way a response by the state that is not in line with international human rights law.”
In its rebuttal, Nicaragua said the report “had ignored violence aimed at overthrowing a democratically elected government,” according to Reuters.
Zeid called on Nicaragua to immediately halt the abuses, resume the “national dialogue” and grant his agency official and “unfettered” access to the country. He called on the international community to pressure Nicaragua to stop the human rights violations in the report.