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14 May 2020

The Nicaraguan government continues to put the lives of imprisoned women human rights defenders at risk during COVID-19

Front Line Defenders shares the concern of national and international organizations in relation to the increased risks faced by human rights defenders and political prisoners in Nicaragua during the pandemic. There is cause for serious concern regarding the deteriorating health of imprisoned women human rights defenders due to medical negligence, considering both the medial conditions they suffer from and in the context of COVID-19.

A number of Nicaraguan human rights organisations have already highlighted the impact that COVID-19 has had on imprisoned human rights defenders and political prisoners, as a result of overcrowding in prisons, pre-existing chronic and or respiratory diseases, in addition to poor medical care and hygiene in detention centres. Organisations such as the Nicaraguan Defenders initiative (IND) the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), the Legal Defense Unit, the Registry Unit and the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (ACJD), among others, have documented that the number of human rights defenders and activists in arbitrary detention has increased by 32.2% between March 2020 and the beginning of May, stemming from the socio-political crisis that began in Nicaragua in April 2018.

The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy Registration Unit reported that at least 28 imprisoned human rights defenders in the following detention centres have shown symptoms of COVID-19 and have not received medical attention: La Modelo, Waswali, Chinandega, Granada and La Esperanza women's prison. Similarly, the IND has reported cases of torture, negligence and denied access to medical care in detention centres.

Such is the case of defenders María Esperanza Sánchez detained on 26 January 2020, Juana Estela López Alemán detained on 20 April, and Karla Vanessa Escobar Maldonado detained on 30 April in La Esperanza women's prison, as well as the case of Celia Cerda Cruz arrested on 21 April and held in La Modelo (men's prison). It is worth noting that Karla Vanessa Escobar Maldonado had previously been detained and released from prison in March 2019. These Nicaraguan women human rights defenders are widely recognised for their defense of social and political rights and their active participation in civic struggles for democracy and human rights. The arbitrary detentions and arrests are motivated by their participation in anti-government protests since 2018, as well as their leadership in pro-democracy movements.

The relatives of arrested defenders have also denounced the torture, degrading treatment, lack of adequate medical attention, and retention of medicines, essential resources and food by prison custodians. Three of the defenders suffer from significant underlying diseases considered high risk factors for COVID-19: high blood pressure, chronic cardiac asthma, and coronary thrombosis in the case of María Esperanza; Celia Cerda Cruz suffers from hypertension and thyroid problems; and Karla Vanessa suffers from thyroid and uterine issues, aggravated by the poor health and hygiene conditions of La Esperanza prison. Juana Estela, although in relatively good health, has a leg disability that has deteriorated significantly in the absence of an orthopaedic mattress.

The health of defenders María Esperanza and Celia Cerda Cruz is particularly critical. María Esperanza has suffered several asthma attacks which were not adequately addressed, resulting in the defender being hospitalised from 29 April until 4 May under the diagnosis of tachycardia and asthmatic attack. Since she was discharged, prison officials have refused to follow the recommendations of International Red Cross staff, who prescribed her a daily nebuliser treatment. Upon returning to prison, María Esperanza found that 30 inmates were presenting symptoms of fever, cough, diarrhoea and vomit. The defender also expressed concern that her cellmates are unwell and feared being infected with COVID-19. Since 8 May, Celia Cerda Cruz has had high fevers and to date, has not received any medical attention.

At the time of writing, authorities and medical personal from La Esperanza women’s prison have only supplied paracetamol to some patients due to a shortage of medicine in the prison. The absence of timely preventive measures, as well as the negligence of the La Esperanza and La Modelo penitential systems, is placing women defenders at high risk of contracting COVID-19. The result of such negligence is the deterioration of prisoners such as María Esperanza and Celia Cerda Cruz. Political prisoners are experiencing a similar situation in the rest of the country's prisons.

Despite the recommendations issued by the World Health Organization’s recommendations for COVID-19, the Nicaraguan government’s response to the pandemic has been marked by the absence of preventive measures, profound misinformation on contagion figures and a defamatory policy against social distancing campaigns such as #QuédateEnCasa (#StayHome). The civil society organisation Citizen Observatory has questioned the official figures released by the government on the pandemic, and so far has reported that more than 1,000 suspected cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed as atypical pneumonia.

Daniel Ortega’s government has also disregarded recommendations of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) as well as those made by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) regarding COVID-19. Both have urged the government to: exercise reliable leadership; ensure COVID-19 response is consistent with international human rights obligations; and reduce overcrowding in detention centres, including the release of those detained and imprisoned without sufficient legal basis in the context of the protests.

Front Line Defenders urges the authorities in Nicaraguan to implement urgent measures to guarantee the health and integrity of human rights defenders, political prisoners and their families, against the impacts of COVID-19. It also calls on the authorities to ensure dignified and adequate conditions of detention centres in accordance with international human rights standards, particularly in La Esperanza and La Modelo prisons.

Front Line Defenders urges the Nicaraguan government to respect its national and international commitments on human rights, including the right to equal protection before the law against all discrimination and without any distinction (Article 7, UDHR) and the right to dignified treatment without torture, or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 5, UDHR).