ANAGUA, NICARAGUA: Claudia Campos never thought of herself as a political activist. Nor could she have ever imagined that, one day, she would be picked up by heavily armed police officers, beaten, and have an assault rifle held to her head. Never did she think that representatives of her government would threaten her children’s lives.
“They would tell me, ‘We are going to get even with your family, you have no idea what can happen to your children,’” she now recounts.
Claudia’s troubles began when she, like many Nicaraguans, took to the streets to protest the government of President Daniel Ortega. Beginning in April last year, the protests broke out in response to austerity measures that would see social security payments go up, even as pensions were slashed.
But it was the government’s brutal response that led Claudia to speak out. “I joined the protests when I saw how elderly people were beaten, and how they had attacked the people who joined the first demonstrations”, she says.
Claudia has no history of criminal activity. Yet in October last year, six heavily armed police officers arrested her as she walked to church with her husband. The abuse started immediately. “From the moment they put me in the patrol car they began beating me,” says Claudia.
Charged with kidnapping, assault, obstruction of the public highway and illegal possession of firearms, Claudia and her husband were each sentenced to 18 months of prison. A mother of two who used to sell pork at the local market, Claudia says she has never held a gun in her life.
She was taken to Nicaragua’s notorious La Esperanza Penitentiary, 140 km far from her family home. In prison, she learned about the brutality of the Nicaraguan justice system. When she spoke up for a newly arrived ‘sister’—as female protesters had begun to refer to themselves—the guards turned on her. Entering her cell, Claudia describes the guards pummeling her arms, legs, and back with their clubs. The beating lasted around half an our only ceasing when her attackers tired out. Despite her injuries, Claudia would receive no medical attention. “The repression was extreme,” she adds.
Amid assassinations, torture, and forced disappearances, 325 people died and more than 2,000 have been injured. At least 62,000 have fled the country, most to neighboring Costa Rica, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Photo by Jorge Mejía Peralta.
Claudia’s experience is only one of many similar stories. Last August, a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) denounced Nicaragua’s “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment... in the context of detentions.” The same report uncovered evidence of physical torture “including through burnings with Taser guns and/or cigarettes, use of barbed wire, beatings…and attempted strangulation.”
The Government’s response was to expel OHCHR from the country.
Like Claudia, Delmis María was detained by the government for involvement in the protest movement. A 55-year old homemaker, “Aunt Delmis”, as young people used to call her when she attended demonstrations, was picked up by masked paramilitaries in the city of Jinotepe on November 7, 2018. They grabbed her in the middle of the day as she walked to the market.
She was thrown into a cell and interrogated throughout the morning. “They called me ‘terrorist, tranquera, assassin,’ it was a psychological war,” says Delmis, who has dedicated most of her life to caring for her four children. (“Tranquero/a” is a pejorative term for someone who sets up roadblocks as a disruption in order to achieve some goal, often political.)
Delmis broke down as she recalled an incident that took place on February 7, when she was already transferred to La Esperanza.
“The young women had helped me to get up on the top of a bunk bed. We saw everything. [The guards] broke Jeisy’s arm and left her purple. They beat Brenda. They left Irlanda bloody after beating her face and chest, causing her stomach to hemorrhage,” she says.
Delmis found her time behind bars “very hard,” amidst the endless violence, unsanitary conditions, and psychological abuse. But it was the deterioration of her health, and the thought she might not see her family again, that most worried her. A longtime sufferer of lupus erythematosus, she needed medication to keep her symptoms at bay. Although her family provided the police with the medicine she needed, the officials refused to give it to her. She remembers constantly vomiting, fainting, and becoming physically weak.
“I thought I was going to leave there in a body bag,” she says.
Both Claudia and Delmis describe a similar set of irregularities in their cases that contravene Nicaraguan law: no arrest warrants were issued, access to lawyers were denied, and their appearance before a judge delayed. The witnesses that testified at their hearings were civil servants or government sympathizers. Independent witnesses were intimidated into not appearing before the judge.
Despite the brutality of Claudia and Delmis’ ordeal, others have arguably fared worse. The OHCHR documented the cases of two young women who were pregnant when arrested. Identified by local media as Elsa Valle, 19, and María Alejandra Castillo, 21, both suffered miscarriages while in custody.
Last month the government approved a law that grants amnesty for all protest-related violent acts that occurred since April 2018. While this has secured the release of almost all political prisoners, it also means the violence committed by security forces and militias will not be investigated. Photo by Jorge Mejía Peralta.
Beyond the prison walls, government forces and pro-government militias have waged a brutal street campaign that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has described as constituting “crimes against humanity.” Amid assassinations, torture, and forced disappearances, 325 people died and more than 2,000 have been injured. At least 62,000 have fled the country, most to neighboring Costa Rica, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Last month the government approved a law that grants amnesty for all protest-related violent acts that occurred since April 2018. While this has secured the release of almost all political prisoners, it also means the violence committed by security forces and militias will not be investigated.
For Claudia and Delmis, who were both released under house arrest in February this year, this led to all charges being dropped. While they regained their freedom, the memories of the brutality they faced during their time behind bars, and the thought that their tormentors will not be brought to justice, still stings.
Both mentioned a sense of solidarity with those that experienced similar ordeals. Claudia said: “We are sisters, because we are in the same struggle and daughters of the same country.”