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Essay: The international community must keep bringing the repression of the Nicaraguan Government into the light

ELLIS HEASLEY, of UK-based religious freedom advocacy CSW, looks at the findings of a new report into President Daniel Ortega’s crackdown on churches…

London, UK

The Nicaraguan Government will not like the increased attention that its human rights record has received over the past year. Repeated comments from Pope Francis, coverage in international news outlets, and increased scrutiny from bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Organization of American States  – none of this suits a regime that has done all it can to silence and stifle independent and critical voices for the better part of six years now.

Perhaps that is why it has started trying to clean up its image; last month the government finally released the Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando José Álvarez Lagos – a prominent critic of President Daniel Ortega who had spent nearly a year in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison after receiving a 26-year sentence on charges of conspiracy against the state.

 Catholics take part in a reenactment of the Stations of the Cross during the Lenten season at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua, on Friday, 17th March, 2023. Amid tensions between the Vatican and the Daniel Ortega government, Catholics staged the devotional commemoration of Jesus Christ’s last day on Earth in the gardens of the Cathedral due to the police ban on celebrating religious festivities on the streets. PICTURE: AP Photo/Inti Ocon/File photo.

The charges against Bishop Álvarez Lagos were completely unfounded, and therefore his release is welcome, however the circumstances are not.

The bishop was one of 19 Roman Catholics released into exile in January following negotiations between the government and the Vatican. He had already been stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship, in violation of international law, and as much as the government would like to portray his release as a gesture of good will, the truth is that he is one of hundreds who have been forced to choose between prison or exile on account of their criticism of the regime.

“With a focus on the right to freedom of religion or belief, the report finds that the number and severity of FoRB violations grew significantly over the past year. CSW recorded 310 separate FoRB cases during this period – almost double the 156 documented in a previous report which covered the period from November, 2021 through November, 2022.”

Beginning with the release of 222 political prisoners to the United States in February last year, this appears to have become government policy over the past 12 months, one of a number of concerning trends in the situation of human rights in the country identified in a brand new report by CSW that covers the period from November, 2022, through January, 2024.

With a focus on the right to freedom of religion or belief, the report finds that the number and severity of FoRB violations grew significantly over the past year. CSW recorded 310 separate FoRB cases during this period – almost double the 156 documented in a previous report which covered the period from November, 2021 through November, 2022.

Most cases involved multiple violations and some affected thousands of people, and the true number is likely to be even higher given that a significant percentage of violations goes unreported due to the climate of fear that the government has created.

One area in which the government appears to have particularly increased its efforts is in the control and co-opting of religious events, activities and services. These were the most commonly reported among a wide range of violations that includes the arbitrary detention and harassment of religious leaders and adherents, the forced closure of religious institutions, and significant restrictions on members of religion or belief communities’ entry and re-entry to Nicaragua.

One Nicaraguan FoRB defender told us: “Religious celebrations that, due to tradition and customs, have been held for years, can no longer be carried out in families, neighbourhoods, homes, churches and public places, where the government keeps everything under surveillance, with limited hours to celebrate mass or religious services, and only if authorised by them.”

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Many Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have reported being forced to limit their services to a single 45-minute meeting on Sundays, in many cases driving church members to withdraw for fear of becoming a target of the authorities.

The infiltration and use of informants in congregations of all types in order to monitor and report on the content of sermons, prayers and other activities has also become increasingly common; in April 2023 for example police arrested Father Alfonso Zamora in his home, apparently after a pro-government schoolteacher recorded the priest praying for Bishop Álvarez Lagos and accused him of criticising the government. Father Zamora was held and interrogated for two days, and upon his release he was warned to stop praying for Bishop Álvarez Lagos.

That this is taking place even as other religious groups who are aligned with and supportive of the government have continued to meet freely makes it abundantly clear that the authorities do not object to the activities themselves, but rather that they are desperate to snuff out all space in which the people of Nicaragua might come together and discuss matters of peace, justice, unity and democracy.

This is why the international community must do all it can to strengthen such spaces; it must amplify the independent voices of those who remain in the country and those who have been forced into exile and in doing so it may shine a light on the repression that President Ortega and his regime would clearly much rather was kept in the dark.

Ellis Heasley is public affairs officer at UK-based religious freedom advocacy CSW


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