Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 100 | Noviembre 1989



Prison Inspections End Numbers Speculation

Envío team

A recent census of Nicaragua's prisons has helped dispel the aura of mystery that opposition groups have tried to create concerning the number of political prisoners. The Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH), which receives US government funds from the National Endowment for Democracy for its international bulletins and is avidly anti-Sandinista, estimated the number of "political prisoners" to be as high as 6,000. The Red Cross census found less than 1,400 prisoners who could be considered in any way political, dispelling the CPDH's outrageous claims once and for all.

On September 2, Claudio Baranzini of Switzerland, head of the International Red Cross delegation in Nicaragua, reported that in the national penitentiary system the total number of ex-Somocista Guardsmen stands at 38 and the number of persons convicted or accused of counterrevolutionary crimes comes to 1,268. The census, requested by the Ministry of the Interior, was conducted on August 26 by 15 people who issued a report on each prison visited, confirming government reports on the matter.

In March, the government released over 1,800 ex-Guardsmen, and in recent weeks, several hundred persons accused or convicted of contra activity have been granted their freedom. The government has stated that contras in prison will be released in accord with the contra demobilization process. In addition, in mid-October the government announced the formation of a commission to review the cases of women prisoners convicted of petty crimes (not violent or related to contra activity).

Red Cross in Nicaragua

The International Red Cross, which has had a permanent delegation in Nicaragua since 1978, visits the six major regional prisons and Managua's Zona Franca three times a year, the minimum-security prison farms twice a year, and the major prison at Tipitapa four times a year. (As of 1988, Red Cross personnel had access to 830 prison sites in 36 countries.) Baranzini told envío that the International Red Cross has the following criteria for its periodic visits to the prisons: access to all the prisons and all the inmates who are eligible for Red Cross attention (in the case of Nicaragua, ex-National Guardsmen and contras), private interviews with inmates, and a guarantee that visits will continue.

In addition to its work in defense of prisoners' human rights, the organization distributes aid packages containing soap, clothing and other personal items and, in the case of the contras and ex-National Guardsmen, helps relatives with a travel allowance. "We can carry out our work [in Nicaragua] without any obstacles from the prison authorities," Baranzini told Barricada in September. He said he would meet soon with Ministry of the Interior authorities to arrange access to the state security detention centers, which are not part of the national penitentiary system. Until recently, international agencies have not had access to the state security system, but Americas Watch was invited in September.

Americas Watch Visits State Security Prisons

On September 10 Juan Méndez, executive director of the Washington office of Americas Watch, arrived in Managua to make arrangements for his organization's visit to the state security detention centers.

La Prensa, in addition to backing opposition claims that there are over 6,000 political prisoners, in recent months has published the addresses of what it claimed were secret state security prisons. Juan Méndez, executive director of the Washington office of Americas Watch, spent a week in Nicaragua visiting both state security detention centers and those La Prensa claimed were secret prisons. Méndez visited a number of the addresses in both Puerto Cabezas and on the Pacific coast but found that they were all private homes.

In a follow-up visit, Stephen Kass, vice president of Americas Watch, traveled to Nueva Guinea and Río Blanco to inspect additional state security facilities. He also searched in vain for alleged secret prisons. The final report on the visits should be released soon.

In Managua, Méndez visited the El Chipote detention center, famous in the Somoza era for its torture facilities. Reporters and TV crews were allowed in to cover the visit as well. No prisoners were found in the facility; one guard said there hadn't been any inmates there for several months.

Most cells are about 12 by 6 feet in size, with two bunk beds and a toilet that is little more than a tiled hole in the floor. A guard said that when there were prisoners in El Chipote there were usually only two to a cell. One reporter mentioned that most cells in the US are about the same as these, except that the US variety generally has only one bunk bed and perhaps a more ordinary toilet (which may not work). The visitors also saw several areas where detainees could get some fresh air and sunshine and a larger cell furnished for conjugal visits.

A small, decrepit building where prisoners were held in isolation and tortured during the Somoza era can still be seen, as well as a 12-foot deep hole, about 2 by 2 feet wide, where the National Guard held prisoners for special punishment.

Claims of party harassment lack substance

One of the agreements reached by President Ortega and the opposition parties in the National Dialogue in early August was that the government would review the cases of any party members supposedly incarcerated for political activities. The Democratic Conservative Party presented four names and the Democratic Party of National Confidence offered 16. The Social Democratic Party and the Social Christian Party presented some names long after the deadline had passed, so these cases could not be reviewed. The other 16 opposition parties did not submit names to the National Assembly committee.

After reviewing the cases, the executive branch proposed pardons for 12 of the 20. (Six of the persons presented by the parties were not in custody, and two cases were rejected). The 12 were among a large group of 457 persons in jail for violating the Law for the Maintenance of Order and Public Security who were pardoned on September 26 by the National Assembly. All women in this category were pardoned. Others were elderly and sick prisoners, and many had already been paroled.

Another agreement in the National Dialogue was to abolish two long-criticized laws—one governing police powers and one dealing with counterrevolutionary activity, the Law for the Maintenance of Order and Public Security. The National Assembly did just that in mid-October, abolishing the police law that allowed the police themselves to give sentences of up to six months without a trial. They also abolished the Public Security Law.

Nicaragua continues to demand that international organizations have access to the 1,845 Nicaraguans who have been kidnapped and are still being held by the contras in Honduras. "While the contras and ex-Guardsmen are accounted for and assured of protection of their rights, who can certify how the Nicaraguans in the contra concentration camps in Honduras are being treated?" asked Barricada in early September.

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