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More than a year after deadly protests began in Nicaragua against the government of president Daniel Ortega, the National Assembly passed an amnesty law pardoning crimes related to the demonstrations. The law also reinforced June 18 as the deadline for the release of all prisoners detained for their participation in the protests, which began on April 18, 2018, and left more than 325 people dead. The government claims that it freed all political prisoners by the deadline, but there have been discrepancies between how many political prisoners the opposition and the government said were being detained during past negotiations. According to opposition leader Carlos Tunnermann of the Civic Alliance, the government has freed over 600 political prisoners since February. Yet the opposition lists more than 80 individuals who still have not been released.
What is the amnesty law?
On June 8, the Nicaraguan National Assembly approved an amnesty law that pardons the protesters, the state security forces, and the pro-government paramilitaries for any crimes committed during the anti-government protests and clashes that began on April 2018 against Ortega. The law, introduced and passed by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN)-controlled Assembly with backing from Ortega himself, granted amnesty for crimes committed during the protests and the subsequent crackdowns, shutting the door to further investigation into any crimes committed by security forces or pro-government civilians during the repression. The law also called for the release of all political prisoners by June 18 to comply with the 90-day period agreed upon in March negotiations between the government and the opposition.
The release of protesters, however, is contingent on them not participating in any further protests against the Ortega government. The law came after months of stalled talks between the government and the opposition, whose members continuously placed the release and exoneration of all detainees—as well as early elections—at the forefront of the negotiations.
What are its implications?
While the lawmakers who approved the law have described it as necessary for national unity, peace, and stability, the law has been widely rejected by many, including the Nicaraguan opposition, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, the United States, and the executive secretary of Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Paulo Abrão. Critics described it as a law of autoamnistía, a self-amnesty law, aimed at protecting Ortega’s regime. Opposition groups like the Civic Alliance say that the law will lead to impunity by impeding any investigations into the human rights violations committed during the protests and will prevent the victims from accessing justice.
Critics have also pointed out that the law strips released protesters of their constitutional right to freedom of assembly by prohibiting them from engaging in any protests. Nicaraguans who were forced to go into exile following the government’s repression and threats from pro-government paramilitaries have denounced the law, claiming that it does not apply to them because it does not guarantee their safe return to Nicaragua.
What’s next in the Nicaragua crisis?
The government released a statement on June 18 saying that it had complied with the terms outlined by the amnesty law and released all the prisoners named in a list review and agreed upon by third parties on March 27, 2019. However, the Civic Alliance claims that, as of June 18, the government failed to comply with both the law and the March agreement because more than 80 people are still being detained as political prisoners. More protests erupted against Ortega’s administration after the June 18 deadline, headed by the families of the individuals still in detention.
Those who have been released have not been given any legal documents proving their crimes have been pardoned, and penal judges were advised to suspend their cases against the released prisoners, not close them.