Nicaragua: Law Threatens Free, Fair Elections

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Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega greets soldiers during the oath of the Commander in Chief of the Nicaraguan army General Julio Cesar, at the Revolution square in Managua, Nicaragua February 21, 2020.
© REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

(Washington, DC) – The Nicaraguan Congress passed a law proposed by President Daniel Ortega on December 21, 2020 that appears designed to bar opposition candidates from participating in the 2021 presidential elections, Human Rights Watch said today. Member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union (EU) should urgently condemn this legislation that threatens Nicaraguans’ rights to run for office and vote in fair and free elections.

The law prohibits so-called “traitors” from running for or holding public office. It defines “traitors” in sweeping terms to include, for example, people who “undermine independence, sovereignty and self-determination” or “damage the supreme interests of the nation.” The law is silent on how such a determination would be made, or by whom.

“Doing Ortega’s bidding, the Nicaraguan Congress has passed a law that could be used to label Ortega’s opponents as ‘traitors’ and keep them from running in the upcoming 2021 national elections,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “With this law in force, there is little to no hope of free and fair elections in Nicaragua.”

President Ortega, who has been in power since 2007, sent the bill to Congress for its “urgent” consideration on December 18. The bill was passed with small modifications after a single debate and entered into force on December 22.

Under the law, a “traitor” is anyone deemed to “lead or finance a coup, alter the constitutional order, promote or incite terrorist acts, carry out acts that undermine independence, sovereignty, and self-determination, incite foreign interference in internal affairs, request military interventions, organize with foreign funding to carry out acts of terrorism and destabilization, propose and organize economic, commercial and financial blockades against the country and its institutions, those who demand, praise and applaud the imposition of sanctions against Nicaragua and its citizens, and all those who damage the supreme interests of the nation recognized in its legal system.”

This law is inconsistent with regional and international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.

The American Convention on Human Rights, which Nicaragua has ratified, provides in Article 23 that a law may regulate political rights, including the right “to vote and be elected in genuine periodic elections … only on the basis of age, nationality, residence, language, education, civil and mental capacity, or sentencing by a competent court in criminal proceedings.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Nicaragua is also a party, also recognizes and protects in Article 25 the right of every citizen, “without unreasonable restrictions,” to “take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; to vote and be elected;” as well as to “have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.” The Human Rights Committee, which monitors countries’ compliance with the ICCPR, has said that any restrictions on the right to run or hold public office should be based on “objective and reasonable criteria.”

In recent months, the Nicaraguan government has promoted, and Congress has passed, several other laws that seriously restrict rights to freedom of expression and association in the country and could undermine free and fair elections in 2021, Human Rights Watch said.  

In October, Congress passed a “foreign agents” law, which requires many people and groups that receive direct or indirect funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” and bars them from intervening in “matters of internal politics.” The law also forbids the individuals registered as “foreign agents” from running for public office until a year after they have withdrawn their registration and the government has verified that they are not receiving foreign funding.

That same month, Congress adopted a “cybercrime” law criminalizing a wide range of online communications. It provides prison sentences of up to four years for the “publication” or “dissemination” of “false” or “distorted” information on the internet “likely to spread anxiety, anguish or fear.”

In November, Congress approved in its first reading a constitutional amendment that would allow life sentences for broadly defined “hate crimes.” Nicaraguan law does not address “hate crimes,” although the government has often accused critics and political opponents of committing them. Congress is expected to pass the amendment in January 2021.

In 2018, a brutal crackdown on protesters by Nicaragua’s National Police and armed pro-government groups left over 300 people dead and 2,000 injured and resulted in hundreds of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions. The government stripped 10 nongovernmental organizations of their legal registration, forcing them to close, and harassed and detained journalists.

“By establishing an uneven playing field for the 2021 elections, the government is undermining the rights of all Nicaraguans to take part in free and fair elections,” Vivanco said. “And after 13 consecutive years as president, Ortega seems determined to stay in power even at the cost of Nicaraguans’ basic rights.”

Correction: The news release was updated to reflect that, “The bill was passed with small modifications after a single debate and entered into force on December 22,” where it previously noted that, “The bill was passed with small modifications after a single debate and will became law as soon as it is published in the Official Gazette.”