An attempt to count the dead resulted in death threats last week. The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) closed its Managuan office on August 6 after staff members received death threats by phone. ANDPH has been committed to identifying those killed in over three months of anti-government protests in Nicaragua.
Prior to August 6, in addition to the death threats, the organization received what they believe to be credible information that staff members might be charged with fake crimes if they remain in the country. This prompted the head of ANDPH, Alvaro Leiva, and other staff to leave the country. They plan to continue their work electronically from a safer location.
Efforts to ensure human rights and give aid to protestors have caused problems for more than just ANDPH. At least eight doctors told the Associated Press on July 7 that they had been fired for treating injured protestors. Though the signed dismissal letters did not list a cause, doctors who spoke to the AP were certain that their efforts to help the wounded resulted in their termination.
These are the latest development in Nicaragua where anti-government protesters have been violently suppressed over the course of three months, according to human rights organizations.
Protests originally broke out on April 18 when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced changes to social security that will increase employer pay-in and decrease the pensions of retirees. The policy announcement sparked existing frustrations over censorship and repression that had been brewing for some time prior, according to the New York Times. President Ortega was re-elected for a third term in 2016 despite suspicions of electoral fraud.
Government security forces responded to the massive protests (complete with barricades) by using unlawful imprisonment, kidnapping, and violence, according to human rights groups.
Since the start of the protests, these organizations have been committed to tracking disappearances and deaths. The numbers vary, but overall the estimates are higher than those put out by the government.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) announced an updated estimate on August 2 of those killed in the violence, placing the number at just over 300. IACHR wrote that their team has “documented an increase in repression and raids carried out by the National Police Force and parapolice groups as part of the so-called operation for peace.”
ANPDH, whose members have now had to flee the country, released their most recent estimate on July 26. According to the organization, over the course of three months, protest violence claimed the lives of 448 people. ANDPH formally identified 399 of the 448 killed and included 49 other deaths in the count based on evidence from newspapers and photographs. According to ANDPH, over 600 others have been kidnapped to suppress anti-government sentiment.
The international community has not been silent in the face of these rising death tolls. U.S. sanctions represent a good start what should be a broader international commitment. In a recent press release, the White House supported peaceful protests against President Ortega, strongly condemning, “the ongoing violence in Nicaragua and human rights abuses committed by the Ortega regime in response to protests.”
The presence of the UN on the ground in Nicaragua is also an important element. The spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner said on July 17 that the UN monitoring team has generally had access to locations including prisons. The team hopes to gain information that will help locate those who have disappeared. The UN has also condemned the government’s use of force and warned against labeling protestors as terrorists.
The intimidation that resulted in members of ANDPH fleeing Nicaragua cannot be condoned under any circumstances. In the face of rising death tolls and doctors removed from their posts for upholding medical ethics, human rights organizations are crucial to aid those affected on the ground. Their work to tally the exact number of people killed in protests in Nicaragua cannot and should not be impeded, particularly by threats of violence or imprisonment. The international community must do everything possible to ensure that human rights monitoring continues in Nicaragua.
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