Nicaragua’s jailed activists face a coronavirus death sentence

The Nicaraguan government is using the pandemic as a weapon against dissidents.

A prison guard stands at the entrance of the penitentiary system "La Modelo"
A prison guard stands at the entrance of La Modelo, after 2,500 prisoners were released due to coronavirus concerns in Nicaragua [Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas]

When university student and activist John Cerna Zuniga was arrested on February 28 and later sentenced to 12 years in jail on drug trafficking charges, the coronavirus outbreak was only just beginning to make global headlines.

Fast forward five months, and the 24-year-old engineering student is languishing in an overcrowded cell in La Modelo, one of Nicaragua’s toughest prisons, terrified of the virus that has killed more than 200,000 people in Latin America alone and 690,000 across the world.

His story is illustrative of a tragic pattern of incarceration of opposition-minded people in Nicaragua that human rights organisations have been documenting since the mass protests of 2018. There are more than 90 activists imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

Daniel Ortega’s administration has been accused of using the judiciary to punish those who have dared criticise its policies and practices.

Back in 2018, when thousands across the country took to the streets to demand freedom and respect for their human rights, more than 300 people were killed, most at the hands of the security forces and pro-government armed groups. Thousands were injured, scores arbitrarily arrested and tens of thousands forced into exile, where many remain. It was the beginning of a wave of protests that has continued until this day.

Since then, Nicaraguan authorities have relentlessly targeted anybody who dares to participate in any form of protest or criticism of the government. Activists, and even doctors trying to fight a pandemic that the Ortega administration continues to play down, have been punished with harassment and even dismissals.

Student leaders like Cerna are among the victims of the “open season” against those who do refuse to fall into line.

Elton Ortega Zuniga, a lawyer representing some of the students and activists, told us the government used to charge activists with complex offences, including terrorism and organised crime, but now they focus on common crimes, such as supposed drug possession, as part of a strategy to discredit activists.

Nicaragua’s crumbling prison system, which is overcrowded and lacks drinkable water, food and proper medical care, seems to be seen as a fitting punishment for defending human rights.

Cerna recently told his partner, one of the two people who manage to visit him and bring him food and cleaning products every other week, that he is sharing a five-by-five-metre cell with another 22 people. He often sleeps in an improvised hammock made of bedsheets. Prisoners sleep, cook, eat in their cells and spend just one hour outside.

Since the end of March, the pandemic has turned a desperate situation into a potentially catastrophic one. Basic safety guidelines and physical distancing are impossible to follow in the crowded cells, where the water is hardly sufficient to drink, let alone clean with.

In an apparent bid to show they are taking action, the Nicaraguan authorities released 4,515 people between April and May and another 1,605 in July. Cerna, who, according to his family, suffers from a pulmonary disease, epilepsy and has a broken rib, was not one of the lucky ones. Nor were most of the other activists held on trumped-up charges.

In mid-July, authorities released four activists – a welcome move, but one that does not go nearly far enough to protect the lives of people who should never have been imprisoned in the first place.

Back in April, Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged states to release “every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners, and those detained for critical, dissenting views”. But the Nicaraguan authorities’ actions show there are two types of prisoners in the Central American country: those whose detentions are politically motivated, and the rest.

In recent weeks, relatives of prisoners who remain incarcerated have told us horror stories about the sound of coughs, the fevers and the body pains spreading within the prison walls.

Cerna told his lawyer about an old man from the cell next to his who showed all the symptoms of COVID-19 and had been removed from the prison a month ago, never to be seen again.

Doctors warn that the consequences of not treating the disease caused by the virus can lead to severe long-term health impacts. Yet, according to lawyers we have spoken to, instead of being tested, prisoners in Nicaragua are often told that they have “just a cold” and are accused of lying. “They are told the symptoms are psychological,” one prisoner’s lawyers told us.

The COVID-19 outbreak has made the human rights crisis in Nicaragua that much worse and now threatens the lives of dozens of activists.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.