Over 100 protesters jailed in connection with last year’s protests have been released this week in Nicaragua. They have been granted amnesty following a new law backed by President Ortega and passed by Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) MPs in Congress on 8 June. More than 700 people were incarcerated last year, and the government has set a deadline of 18 June for all to be freed. The amnesty also applies to police and security forces who were jailed for their actions in cracking down on the unrest.
Despite claims from FSLN Congressman Edwin Castro that the law ‘seeks peace and reconciliation,’ it has received widespread criticism because it extends to security forces. UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and opposition member Maria Teresa Blandon expressed concerns that those who committed human rights violations during the protests would not be prosecuted.
Scepticism is common amongst those released. Student leader Edwin Carcache insisted that the government is using the amnesty law to ‘trick’ the public and hide their own crimes. Others expounded the view that amnesty does not equate to liberty. Hansell Vasquez, a journalist released this week, described himself as being free but still feeling ‘imprisoned.’
President Ortega has become increasingly autocratic since the start of his second presidency in 2007. Changes in 2009 and 2014, backed by the FSLN, removed restrictions in Nicaragua’s constitution on presidential terms, first allowing Ortega to run for re-election in 2011 and then allowing him to run indefinitely. In the most recent presidential election in 2016, Ortega won 72.44% of the vote. However, there was some controversy surrounding this result due to the absence of international observers.
Despite starting his political career as a Marxist-Leninist, Ortega’s more recent policies testify to a self-serving politician. Last year’s protests started as an opposition to the government’s planned cuts to welfare benefits, contradicting Ortega’s ideological beliefs. When the protests evolved into a broader, anti-Ortega movement, the President ordered police to shoot indiscriminately into crowds, resulting in events such as the Mother’s Day Massacre.
The level of scepticism from those opposing Ortega and criticising the law is understandable. Extending the amnesty to police and security forces effectively negates any goodwill generated by the release of the protesters. It also suggests that the government views the actions of activists to be as grave as the human rights violations, such as extrajudicial force and unlawful detention, committed on its orders. At best, the amnesty attempts to erase the protests and start anew. At worst, the release of security forces who are clearly loyal to Ortega could suggest that the government is planning something which could provoke further public discontent because it seems like they can and will crack down on any future unrest. The more probable scenario is that Ortega is attempting to restore his public image and is using the protesters’ freedom as a political tool.
Despite celebrations of the protesters’ release, the amnesty does not represent liberation for Nicaragua. Since the crisis started last year, an estimated 60,000 people fled Ortega’s crackdown, and more will join if the President continues to consolidate his own, personal power without regard to the grievances of the Nicaraguan people.