In February the Sandinista government resumed a “national dialogue” with the opposition, re-establishing a forum to resolve political conflict in the country after the previous dialogue fell apart during last year’s violence. In the new negotiations, the opposition Civic Alliance’s key demand has been the release of those who were imprisoned for crimes committed during the failed coup. In late March, the government agreed to release all detained prisoners by 18 June, a process completed several days before the deadline, in co-operation with the International Red Cross.
Agreeing to this demand was very controversial given the large number of Sandinista victims of the coup. There is great reluctance among Sandinistas to accept amnesty for their tormentors. However, many are coming around after their leadership made it clear that this is an important step towards deterring further violence, securing peace and strengthening the country’s social and economic stability.
The Civic Alliance and the international bodies that support them claim that those released are simply “political” prisoners, “not having committed a single crime”. Supposedly all were protesting peacefully and were improperly convicted under a new anti-terrorism law that they claim violates the legitimate right to protest. However, as the AFGJ report Dismissing the Truth showed, most if not all were charged or convicted for crimes committed under Nicaragua’s long-established penal code. The crimes range from murder to ‘impeding or seriously obstructing’ the highway, which of course occurred across the country for three months last year when it was paralyzed by opposition roadblocks. The recent series of short documentaries by Juventud Presidente, several of which are now available in English, show the truth about several of last year’s worst crimes.
The government has argued, understandably, that those who are charged or convicted after due process could not simply be allowed to walk free: their release had to be subject to legal process. To achieve this, the National Assembly passed a simple law with four articles (translated here) that creates an amnesty for those guilty or accused of “political” or “related common crimes” from April 18 last year onwards. It also applies to those not yet arrested or investigated, extending the amnesty to those in hiding or who left the country. It is conditional on their not repeating their crimes. Those released have signed an agreement recognizing the terms of the amnesty.
Any objective observer must see this as an extremely unusual act of state generosity, given the seriousness of the violence. This past week there was a reminder of how horrendous this was, with the funeral of Bismarck Martinez, whose incomplete remains were only recovered last month. He was a Managua municipal worker, kidnapped on his way to visit relatives in Jinotepe in June last year and then brutally tortured by opposition criminals before being killed. His case was one of many incidents of kidnapping and torture of Sandinista supporters and police officers.
Far from welcoming the amnesty law, however, their twisted logic led the Civic Alliance to condemn it, on the basis that since their “political” prisoners are innocent an amnesty is unnecessary and they should simply have been released. The real purpose of the amnesty is, they say, to exonerate the government for the crimes they allege it carried out. The opposition website Confidencial called it a self-amnesty (summarized in English here).
The Civic Alliance and their supporters reveal themselves to be much less interested in freeing Nicaraguans from jail than they are in getting another round of headlines across the globe saying that the Nicaraguan state is harboring paramilitaries, avoiding justice and failing to meet the demands of international bodies. They see the entire “dialogue” as a strategic part of an ongoing global media offensive to delegitimize the Nicaraguan government, whatever it does.
For example Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was alerted to complain about the planned law even before it was published, saying that “Amnesties for serious human rights violations are prohibited under international law.” Had she waited to read the new statute, she would have seen that it specifically does not apply to crimes “regulated under International Treaties to which the State of Nicaragua is Party.” Among these treaties (listed here) is the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture. In the context of last year’s events, it appears to have a major flaw in applying only to state agents (see Article 3 of the convention). Nevertheless, it would not permit the Nicaraguan government to exonerate any state agent who committed torture, under a very wide definition of what that means.
In any case, despite Civic Alliance claims, there is no credible evidence of opposition supporters being tortured by government agents. Most opposition deaths were during exchanges of fire, with victims on both sides, so it would be extremely difficult for any further investigation to reach firm conclusions. For example, during the relief of Masaya on July 17 there were six deaths (including a police officer) in heavy firing by both sides.
Apart from their supposed innocence, the opposition also claims that those imprisoned were submitted to a process plagued with illegalities. They make constant reference to the findings of international bodies, who blame the government for most of last year’s deaths, without of course admitting that those bodies accepted evidence only from the opposition side, as we demonstrated in our analysis of Amnesty International’s report last October. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (part of the Organization of American States) was particularly culpable, showing its complete inability to carry out an objective investigation that takes proper account of the opposition’s violence.
The Civic Alliance’s menu of alternative routes to the liberation of the prisoners, presented last month, was also full of legal pitfalls and would have been so time-consuming in terms of court processes that the timetable could not have been met (as a legal expert explained to Radio La Primerisima). The amnesty statute is simply the quickest and most transparent method of meeting the opposition’s demands while complying with Nicaraguan law.
As the government has repeatedly pointed out, the Civic Alliance has acted in bad faith from the start, determined to disrupt the dialogue through non-attendance or else finding fault with whatever concessions the government makes. This is merely the latest example. The opposition refuses to address the government’s main demand, which is that it urges the United States to remove sanctions such as the Nica Act and requests international bodies such as the OAS to desist from further action against Nicaragua, such as threatening to expel Nicaragua because of alleged violations of the OAS’s democratic charter. The Civic Alliance only comes up with excuses, arguing either that Nicaragua has not yet complied with international demands or that it lacks the necessary influence to get the US government or the OAS to change their minds (despite having actively lobbied for sanctions since May last year).
The Alliance is divided: some members want to negotiate with the government but most simply reject the government’s legitimacy and seek regime change. This prevents them from making any genuine commitment to a negotiated settlement, much less one that might lead to lasting peace. As I write this the last prisoners have been released: the Alliance has achieved one of its main objectives, but its members will continue to behave like spoilt children, stomping their feet and claiming they have been cheated.