The National Assembly of Nicaragua has voted to dissolve the local branch of the Red Cross, a nonprofit humanitarian organisation, as part of an ongoing clampdown on groups seen as hostile to the government of Daniel Ortega.
The law to shutter the Red Cross passed unanimously on Wednesday, with the legislature under the control of Ortega’s Sandinista Party.
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In its place, lawmakers called for a “new Nicaragua Red Cross” that would function as a “decentralised, autonomous” body under the government’s Ministry of Health. However, it is unclear how the country would fund such a venture.
The attack on the Red Cross comes amid a widespread push to suppress perceived government critics and other organisations, including the Catholic Church.
As part of Wednesday’s resolution, the Nicaraguan government will seize the Red Cross’s property in the country. It has accused the healthcare nonprofit of perpetrating “attacks on peace and stability” for its role in anti-government demonstrations in 2018.
Those protests, sparked by changes to Nicaragua’s social security system, quickly grew from a student-led movement to a wider push against Ortega’s administration.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights estimates that 355 people were killed in clashes with government forces between April 2018 and July 2019. Thousands more were injured, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that more than 100,000 people fled the country within two years.
The Red Cross has said its participation in the protests was limited to aiding the injured, but Nicaragua’s government accused the organisation of violating its commitment to political neutrality.
“The association itself transgressed the laws of the country,” it said in a document to the legislature, supporting Wednesday’s actions.
With a history that stretches back to the mid-1800s, the Red Cross has provided disaster relief and emergency assistance during times of conflict around the globe.
The Red Cross’s mandate in Nicaragua began with a 1958 decree that was repealed in Wednesday’s resolution. Funded mainly by donations, it counted approximately 2,000 volunteers and 63 ambulances in the region, according to the news agency AFP.
More than 3,000 groups and nongovernmental organisations have been closed in Nicaragua as part of its crackdown on supposed dissent. They range from an equestrian centre to the 94-year-old Nicaraguan Academy of Letters.
Last week, critics say the Ortega regime also arrested 40 political opponents and charged them with crimes including conspiracy and treason.
This comes after Nicaragua sent 222 political prisoners into exile in the United States, stripping them and other critics of their citizenship in the process. A bishop who refused to board the flight, Rolando Alvarez, has since been imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and “fake news”.