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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Nicaragua’s ‘Nazis’: Stunned investigators invoke Hitler’s Germany

Juan Sebastián Chamorro speaks with reporters after arriving in the United States, in Herndon, Va., Feb. 9, 2023.

By Frances Robles

Nicaragua’s president, his wife and top members of the government committed human rights abuses — including torture and murder — so serious they amounted to crimes against humanity, a United Nations investigative team concluded, providing evidence for efforts to try them overseas.

In a news conference Thursday, the head of the investigation called for international sanctions against the government and compared Nicaragua’s track record on human rights to the Nazis, saying the current government’s tactics to hold power beginning in 2018 were like those seen during the Nuremberg trials.

“The weaponizing of the justice system against political opponents in the way that is done in Nicaragua is exactly what the Nazi regime did,” Jan-Michael Simon, who led the team of U.N.-appointed criminal justice experts, said in an interview.

“People massively stripped of their nationality and being expelled out of the country: This is exactly what the Nazis did, too,” he added.

The Biden administration has imposed sanctions on the government and family of President Daniel Ortega in recent years, although the U.N. report could mean even greater repercussions, including charges in other countries, according to human rights experts.

Under universal jurisdiction, any country’s courts can try people for atrocities committed anywhere and has become a global mechanism for human rights lawyers mostly in Europe to prosecute war crimes carried out by governments such as Syria and Liberia.

“If let’s say Daniel Ortega’s son happens to be in Spain tomorrow, someone could go to a local judge on these grounds and could convince them to go arrest this guy,” said José Miguel Vivanco, adjunct senior fellow for human rights at the Council of Foreign Relations.

The U.N.’s conclusion that Nicaragua carried out crimes against humanity could also affect the government’s ability to secure international financing, Simon said.

In 2018, Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, faced off against a mass uprising of political dissent, as hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrated against cuts to social security and deteriorating democracy, blocking the streets and paralyzing the country.

The government unleashed all the powers at its disposal to crack down on the protesters, U.N. investigators found, with police forces and pro-government groups acting in concert with deadly results.

The police fired on demonstrators in a systematic manner, jointly with armed groups that were not authorized to use force, the report said. Extrajudicial executions were committed by the police and groups allied with the government. The police carried out highly coordinated operations to shut down barricades using violent tactics, investigators found.

The U.N.’s analysis of 40 extrajudicial executions showed police agents and pro-government groups acted in a “coordinated manner.”

By the time the demonstrations were finally halted, hundreds of people had been killed.

To this day, Simon said, “violations continue to be committed.”

The government has denied deliberately killing protesters and has categorized the protests as violent coup attempts, noting that at least two dozen police officers also died. The government did not participate in the U.N. report or allow investigators access to the country.

The investigators also said the government systematically carried out arbitrary detentions and prosecutions of government opponents using multiple government institutions, including the National Assembly, the police, the judiciary, the public defender’s office, the penitentiary and the Institute of Forensic Medicine. People were tortured in custody, the report concluded.

“The Nicaraguan state, in fact, has been weaponizing literally all institutions of the state in terms of control and repression,” Simon said. “The word is weaponizing. They have been weaponizing the justice system, weaponizing the legislative function, weaponizing the executive function.”

The vice president, who serves as the government spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment from The New York Times.

The report comes just weeks after the Ortega government stripped the citizenship from 300 Nicaraguans who a judge called “traitors to the homeland.” Those affected included human rights activists and journalists, among others, most of whom live outside of the country.

The release of the U.N. investigation was a welcome surprise to human rights activists.

“Before I got to jail, this was not the language used by experts. Now the language is stronger,” said Juan Sebastián Chamorro, a Nicaraguan activist who was released from detention last month after 611 days and is now based in Houston.

“That means more evidence has been accumulated and can be used in a future international court,” he said. “We are talking about more than 350 people who were assassinated.”

Chamorro was among the hundreds of Nicaraguan political leaders who were swept up since the 2018 protests first embroiled the country.

Rosalía Gutiérrez-Huete Miller, who was among the Nicaraguans who lost her citizenship last month, said the U.N. report was the condemnation the protesters were waiting for.

“Today’s legal conclusion validates and acknowledges what we have been denouncing for years,” she said by phone from Washington, D.C. “There has never been a declaration as clear as this one. Often these declarations are wishy-washy, trying not to ruffle feathers.”

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