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Nicaragua: The Ortega-Murillo regime’s goal: obliterate space for independent civil society

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Paris-Geneva, 2 June 2022 --- The space for civil society in Nicaragua continues to shrink with the arbitrary cancellation, in less than a month, of the legal status of 177 additional Nicaraguan non-profit organisations and foundations, including several women's rights organisations. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT) denounces this latest assault on civil society and urges the Nicaraguan authorities to revoke this decision and to guarantee, in all circumstances, the right to freedom of association.

Between 4 and 31 May 2022, the National Assembly of Nicaragua, with a majority sympathetic to the Ortega-Murillo regime, approved four Legislative Decree Initiatives. The first three provide for the cancellation of the legal status of 94 non-profit organisations and foundations, and the last one of 83, on the grounds that these organisations do not comply with their legal obligations.

These four initiatives were presented to the National Assembly by Filiberto Rodríguez, deputy of President Daniel Ortega's party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and at the request of the Department of Registration and Control of Associations of the Ministry of Interior. Mr Rodríguez is also president of the National Assembly's Peace, Defence, Governance and Human Rights Commission. On 1 June, he presented a new initiative to cancel the legal personality of 96 new organisations.

Regarding the legal obligations allegedly violated by the aforementioned organisations, in a general and abstract manner, the initiatives say that they failed to register as "foreign agents"; that, for several years, the organisations have not presented their detailed financial reports; that they have not rendered accounts of the resources they have received from abroad; and, furthermore, that their boards of directors have not been updated. The organisations have thus allegedly violated several laws, including Law 977 Against Money Laundering, Financing of Terrorism, and Financing of the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and its Executive Decree, because their actions promote a lack of transparency in the administration of funds; and Law 147 on Non-Profit Legal Entities.

It is worth noting that the Nicaraguan National Assembly had already approved two similar decrees on 17 March and 20 April 2022, cancelling the legal status of 24 and 25 organisations, respectively. Since December 2018, the Nicaraguan authorities have outlawed at least 336 NGOs, including 253 arbitrarily closed in 2022, to date. If the 96 announced are added, this will bring the number of civil society organisations annulled in Nicaragua to 432.

These cancellations are aimed at eliminating any possible social and political vision that differs from that established by the regime. This systematic harassment, characteristic of a totalitarian state, does not only concern political or human rights organisations; artistic, media, educational, scientific, environmental, and social organisations are also victims of persecution. The ultimate goal is to eliminate any possibility of an independent civil society in the country.

The regime has not been satisfied with cancellation of legal status alone; in many cases it has been accompanied by the usurpation and illegal appropriation of assets, as happened with the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH), a member organisation of FIDH and OMCT, even going as far as the usurpation of the offices of the Organisation of American States, in violation of the international immunity that protects this type of property.

These decisions are part of a context of systematic repression since 2018 against individuals and organisations that defend and demand respect for human rights in Nicaragua. The persecution increased in the months leading up to the November 2021 elections with the aim of eliminating all dissenting voices and political opposition and imposing a single form of social organisation controlled by the regime. In addition, since October 2020, the State has adopted a series of restrictive laws arbitrarily applied to restrict the democratic space in which civil society organisations and human rights defenders operate, including Law 977 against Money Laundering and Law 1040 on Foreign Agents, whose ordinances are contrary to international human rights law.

The Observatory strongly condemns the cancellation of the 336 non-governmental organisations' legal status and urges the Nicaraguan authorities to immediately revoke these arbitrary decisions. They must guarantee, in all circumstances, the right to freedom of association --- enshrined in the Nicaraguan Constitution --- as well as in several international human rights instruments, including article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.