With his leading opponent under house arrest for money laundering charges, Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega appears to be weaponizing the justice system to block his competition before presidential elections.
The police raided the home of presidential candidate Cristiana Chamorro on June 2, placing her under house arrest after a judge ordered her detention in connection to a money laundering case. The raid occurred shortly before she was set to give a press conference, Confidencial reported.
A day earlier, prosecutors moved forward with money laundering charges against Chamorro and requested her disqualification from elections scheduled for November, according to a June 1 Attorney General's Office press release. Chamorro is the daughter of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who beat Ortega in the 1990 election.
Chamorro founded and had served as head of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, a press freedom non-governmental organization (NGO), until February, when it suspended operations due to a controversial law restricting NGOs that receive foreign funding.
In late May, the Interior Ministry first announced an investigation into Chamorro and her foundation, claiming it had found “clear evidence of money laundering” after reviewing financial statements from 2015 through 2019. A spokesperson for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which has provided substantial funding to the foundation in recent years, refuted the claim, telling the Associated Press that the agency had found no evidence of laundering during regular audits.
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Prosecutors in the case also demanded testimony from at least 16 journalists, a move that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) quickly criticized. “Linking them to a politically charged criminal proceeding … is just another tactic to intimidate Nicaraguan journalists,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick.
In the run-up to the elections, Nicaragua’s electoral body has already eliminated two opposition parties, including the Democratic Restoration Party (Partido de Restauración Democrática - PRD).
Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a May statement that "the dissolution of political parties and the initiation of criminal investigations that could lead to the disqualification of opposition candidates, without due process, not only undermine the right to stand for election by aspiring candidates, but also the right of voters to elect the candidates of their choice.”
Recent Cid-Gallup polling data showed President Ortega in the lead to win his third consecutive term, while Chamorro was slotted in second place, receiving more support than any other opposition candidate.
InSight Crime Analysis
Using the justice system to silence the opposition as discontent with the government grows is a familiar tactic of Ortega's administration, which has employed the police and courts to target opponents.
Indeed, the Nicaraguan government has "perfected its repressive machinery" since security forces killed hundreds and forced scores of others to flee after widespread anti-government protests broke out in April 2018, according to a 2021 report from Amnesty International.
"The Nicaraguan authorities are waging a war against anyone who criticizes their policies [and] using the courts seems to be one of their favorite weapons," the report found, in reference to the hundreds of arbitrary arrests that authorities have made.
Security forces, particularly the police, have also been used to intimidate critics of the government. A recent report from the electoral observatory Urnas Abiertas (Open Ballot Boxes) recorded 279 instances of political violence during the current election cycle between April 1 and May 15.
Nearly 180 of these acts of violence, or about 65 percent, came in the form of targeted harassment of opposition politicians. National police were deemed responsible in 87 percent of these harassment cases, according to the report.
Most often, uniformed officers surrounded the homes of opposition members and prevented them from leaving, essentially creating “de facto prisons,” the report's authors wrote.
In the past, President Ortega has also relied on the police – either in uniform or disguised within paramilitary groups under the command of his government – to violently repress protesters and opposition leaders. Such pro-government groups have also been tied to politically motivated kidnappings.