Article Nicaragua: Constitution Amended to Establish Life Imprisonment for Hate Crimes

(Feb. 26, 2021) On January 19, 2021, an amendment to Nicaragua’s Constitution establishing life sentences for hate crimes entered into force.

The amendment adds a second paragraph to article 37 of the Constitution. The first paragraph of article 37 states that “[n]o penalty or penalties shall be imposed that alone or together last more than thirty years.”

Nicaraguan jurist and opponent of the amendment José Pallais pointed out a contradiction between this new constitutional provision of article 37 on life in prison and articles 36 and 39 of Nicaragua’s Constitution. Article 36 states that “[e]very person has the right to have his/her physical, mental and moral integrity respected. No one shall be subjected to torture, procedures, punishments[,] or cruel, inhuman[,] or degrading treatment. The violation of this right constitutes a crime and will be punished by law.”

Article 39 establishes that “[i]n Nicaragua, the Penitentiary System is humanitarian and its fundamental objective is the transformation of the inmate in order to reintegrate him/her into society. Through this progressive system, it promotes family unity, health, educational and cultural improvement[,] and productive employment with salary remuneration for the inmate. Sentences have a re-educational character.”

Pallais explained that the imposition of life imprisonment means “the end of the humanitarian principle [established by the Constitution] because there is no possibility of reintegrating [into society] someone who has been [thus] sanctioned for a crime, because he/she leaves prison for the cemetery, never to return to society.”

This amendment has been widely criticized in Nicaragua as an effort by the government of President Daniel Ortega and the ruling party to suppress and “discredit” (descalifica) the political opposition.

Opposition groups have said that the new constitutional provision of life imprisonment in conjunction with the Special Cybercrime Law and the Law for the Regulation of Foreign Agents (both already enacted and in force) “are clear signs of the radicalization of the repression and closure of political spaces by an increasingly repressive dictatorship that violates the rights of Nicaraguans.”

The Special Cybercrime Law punishes with jail the propagation of false and/or distorted news that causes alarm, fear, and anxiety in the population, or a group or sector of it, or a family. This law has been baptized by the unofficial press as the “Gag Law” (Ley Mordaza) because they consider it to have been instituted to affect  traditional and alternative media and users of social networks that are critical of the government.

The Law for the Regulation of Foreign Agents is popularly known as the “Putin Law” in reference to similar policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Article 1 of the Foreign Agents Law states that the purpose of the law is “to establish the legal regulatory framework applicable to natural persons or national or foreign legal entities that, responding to [special] interests and obtaining foreign financing, use those resources to carry out activities that result in interference from Governments, organizations or foreign individuals in the internal and external affairs of Nicaragua, undermining its independence, self-determination and national sovereignty, as well as the economic and political stability of the country.”

The opposition National Coalition has characterized the abovementioned laws as a “new form of repression” in the context of the serious political crisis that the country has been experiencing since April 2018. According to the coalition, “the Sandinista Executive is promoting laws that will be used against its opponents, critics, and the independent press to intimidate, silence, and neutralize dissent and critical voices.”

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