Lawmakers in Nicaragua recently approved an anti-terrorism law that many fear will be used to criminalize the opposition amid a deepening political crisis, a tactic that has been used by other governments throughout the region for political ends.
On July 16, lawmakers in Nicaragua approved an anti-terrorism law against money laundering, financing terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, according to a government press release.
The law was presented to Nicaragua’s National Assembly in April, where the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional – FSLN) holds the majority, according to El Nuevo Diario. It was approved amid a political crisis that is growing worse every day.
Anyone who kills or injures somebody not directly participating in a “situation of armed conflict,” or who destroys or damages public or private property, can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, according to the new legislation. Anyone found guilty of directly or indirectly financing or aiding so-called terrorist operations can also face up to 20 years in prison.
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FSLN deputy Walmaro Gutiérrez described the law as something that will provide the government with the "necessary and sufficient tools" needed to "effectively combat" money laundering, organized crime, terrorism and drug trafficking.
But international observers such as the United Nations and opposition politicians fear that the new law will be used by President Daniel Ortega to criminalize protesters and place them in prison. There are also concerns that it may be used to target members of non-governmental organizations and the church, which have defended the anti-government protestors.
Since anti-government protests began in April, human rights organizations have recorded more than 350 deaths and over 2,000 injuries. The vast majority of the violence has been ordered by Ortega himself and carried out by pro-government paramilitary groups working in conjunction with the national police.
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The creation and use of anti-terrorism laws directed at members of the opposition or criminal organizations is a tactic that has been employed by other governments throughout the region.
Lawmakers in El Salvador, for example, classified the country’s violent gangs as terrorist organizations through a 2016 legislative reform as the government doubled down on hard-line security measures to combat rising violence connected to the gangs. However, the move has arguably had the opposite impact to that intended -- gangs and their criminal activities have grown more sophisticated in response to these measures, and El Salvador is still one of the region’s most violent countries.
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The administration of Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro has also used similar rhetoric to discredit those opposed to his regime, which InSight Crime recently argued resembles a “mafia state.” After authorities killed a prominent opposition leader in a high-powered firefight in January 2018, authorities described the individual as the leader of a “terrorist group.”
Both Ortega and Maduro have branded opposition protesters as “terrorists” and “vandals” in an effort to further criminalize their movements. They have also utilized armed pro-government groups, known as "colectivos" in Venezuela and "turbas" in Nicaragua, to violently repress those in the opposition, at times with deadly force.
However, such tactics have largely failed to quell widespread unrest or criminal activity, and have instead exacerbated such activities. The crisis in Nicaragua has spiraled out of control since peaceful protesters were met with “rabid and disproportionate force” from police and paramilitary groups.