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Vilma Nuñez: “We Continue Defending Human Rights”

Two years ago, the Cenidh offices were illegally raided. Today, its president reaffirms the fight against impunity

In December 2018, nine Nicaraguan NGOs were raided, after their legal status was abruptly stripped away. This was a deliberate part of the Ortega-Murillo regime’s strategy. By eliminating the NGOs, the government sought to “silence and destroy the struggle that Nicaraguans were waging in the streets.” Dr. Vilma Nuñez is president of one of those NGOs – the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (Cenidh). Two years after the illegal raid on her organization, the long-time Cenidh head offered her perspective.

Cenidh documented and publicized the serious human rights violations and abuses that took place during the 2018 April Rebellion. They denounced these both nationally and internationally. The demonstrators looked to the human rights activists to make known the state repression unleashed by the Ortega-Murillo regime.

The repression, carried out principally through police and paramilitary, was under orders from the presidency. Using violent repression, they aimed to quash the protests demanding that President Daniel Ortega leave power.

An interview with Dr. Nuñez, was broadcast on Sunday, December 13th, on the weekly internet news program Esta Semana. During the conversation, she recalled the assault and occupation of Cenidh by some sixty armed police. “It was one of the hardest blows on an institutional level,” she felt. This was because it caused the disarticulation of the Center’s team. Several of them even had to go into exile in Costa Rica to safeguard their lives.

Nonetheless, Cenidh – the human rights organization with the longest history and most credibility in Nicaragua – remains firm in its commitment.

“We continue defending human rights with resolve. We’re working at something that will serve in the future, and they’re not going to be able to destroy it. Likewise, fighting against impunity. We’re looking for ways to cement the foundations for the destruction of impunity. That’s the greatest scourge that’s ever existed in this country,” Nuñez stated.

In December 2018, the National Assembly, controlled by the Ortega-Murillo regime, left nine organizations stripped of their legal status. Cenidh was one of them. The other eight were: The Center for Health Information and Consultancy (CISAS); the Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy (Ieepp); Let’s make Democracy; the Leadership Institute of the Segovias; the Institute for Development and Democracy (Ipade); the River Foundation; and the Center for Communications Investigation (Cinco); and the Popol Na Foundation.

The loyalist legislators put forth the rationale that these organizations had taken part in partisan political activities. They accused them of financing a “coup d’etat”. The latter was the central pillar the government put forth to justify the brutal state repression against the massive protests. Nunez noted that this concept has been discredited, nationally as well as internationally.

“They know that Cenidh is an instrument of the people’s struggle, and they want to destroy it,” she affirmed.

The human rights advocate recalled the police officials’ behavior that December 13th, during the assault and robbery of Cenidh. “They entered like common thieves.” They bound the hands and feet of the security guard and left him under a desk for four hours. In addition to stealing his salary, they removed computers, the hard copy accounting records, and the vehicles. Then, they left to get some other vehicles that were being repaired at a shop.

Still, Nuñez affirmed, with or without an office, Cenidh has continued. However, they can’t work as effectively as before, due to the limitations imposed by the current de facto police state. “We’re permanently objectified.” The regime attacks them through smears and disinformation campaigns, generating fear in the population, Nunez explained.

Legal appeals against the Law of Foreign Agents

Twenty-four months after the plundering of those nine NGOs, independent organizations face new obstacles. Approval of the Law for the Regulation of Foreign Agents, by the National Assembly came on October 15th. Cenidh and other organizations are filing appeals against this law, based on its unconstitutionality.

It obligates organizations and individuals receiving financing from outside the country to register as “foreign agents” with the Interior Ministry. The law defines who is a “foreign agent” in very general terms. The law then allows possible intervention in the property and assets of such “agents”. It also contemplates canceling an NGO’s legal status, if the government feels they’re intervening in “topics or activities of internal politics”.

Over 60 organizations have filed at least a dozen appeals with Nicaragua’s Supreme Court on grounds of unconstitutionality. They allege that the law violates at least 17 different articles and four sub-paragraphs of the Nicaraguan Constitution. Given this, they ask that the law be partially repealed.

The Autonomous Women’s Movement, the Social Movement Coordinator, and the Permanent Human Rights Commission are a few of the organizations that have appealed. The Cenidh president, together with Azahalea Solis and Sofia Montenegro, also filed an appeal on December 11th.

Nuñez explained that not filing appeals of unconstitutionality would be like, “lowering the gas on the struggle”. “We try to fight, denouncing all the violations, the strategies, the repressive tendencies and human rights violations they put forward. We denounce these both nationally and internationally.” Nuñez believes that laws like the “Foreign Agents Law” are “almost the last strategy or repressive tactic, of a practically crippling character, that this government wants to advance.”

On December 17th, the 60-day period contemplated in Article 16 of the law will elapse. This is the period established for the “foreign agents” to register with the interior ministry. “The subjects under obligation won’t be able realize any movement of their financial resources or material wealth unless they comply with the obligation to register during the period established,” the law states.

Vilma Nuñez explained that the term “foreign agent” has two connotations. The first are those representing international countries and organizations. However, the second has implications of a criminal nature. “I’m a Nicaraguan. I was born in Nicaragua, I live in Nicaragua, and I’m going to die in Nicaragua. So, I can’t in any way refrain from appealing this law, and I’m not going to register,” she declared. Doing so would be submitting to a “legal aberration, yet another form of repression,” she added.

Profound transformation needed to guarantee justice

The Cenidh president believes it’s impossible to expect that the victims of repression will find justice under this regime. However, “the Nicaraguan problem won’t be resolved only by getting Daniel Ortega out. We must effect a deep transformation here, because the country’s institutions have been completely destroyed. [Right now] it’s impossible to imagine that those directly or indirectly, or intellectually, responsible for the crimes could someday be seated in the dock.”

“Peace can’t be constructed over cadavers,” Dr. Vilma Nuñez stated emphatically. A democratic system must be constructed, she maintained, and a state governed by rule of law. These must reestablish an independent judicial power to effect justice. However, if these can’t be built, then international justice will have to act. Given this, it’s important to keep alive the international denunciations of what is occurring in Nicaragua, the long-time advocate concluded.

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