Posts Tagged ‘foreign agent law’

Kasparov and Khodorkovsky are now also foreign agents

May 21, 2022
Agence France-Presse

On 21 May 2022 Agence France-Presse reported that Russia on Friday added two high-profile Kremlin critics to its list of “foreign agents“: former chess champion Garry Kasparov and ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The infamous label, reminiscent of the “enemies of the people” of the Soviet period, is used extensively against opponents, journalists and human rights activists accused of conducting foreign-funded political activities. Such “foreign agents” are subject to numerous constraints and laborious procedures, under pain of severe sanctions. In particular, they must indicate this status in all their publications. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2016/02/09/foreign-agent-law-in-russia-keeps-widening-its-net/ and https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/12/29/russias-supreme-court-orders-closure-emblematic-memorial/

In its updated website list, the Russian justice ministry said that Khodorkovsky, 58, and Kasparov, 59, have “sources” in Ukraine to finance their activities.

Soviet-born former world chess champion Kasparov is a long-time opponent of President Vladimir Putin and has lived in the United States for almost a decade.

Khodorkovsky was one of Russia’s most powerful businessmen in the 1990s, before coming into conflict with the Kremlin when Putin came to power in 2000. He spent ten years, from 2003 to 2013, in prison and then went into exile. For years, he helped to finance the Russian opposition organisation Open Russia, which dissolved itself in May last year in the face of growing repression.

Since the start of Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine on 24 February, dozens of members of the Russian intellectual elite and journalists have left the country, as the authorities step up pressure against the last critical voices and media. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/04/26/lev-ponomarev-human-rights-defender-leaves-russia/

https://www.thesouthafrican.com/news/world-news/kasparov-and-khodorkovsky-added-to-foreign-agents-list-russia/

Lev Ponomarev, human rights defender, leaves Russia

April 26, 2022
Lev Ponomarev. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP Photo / TASS

On 22 April, 2022 AFP reported that Lev Ponomarev, a veteran Russian rights defender who was earlier detained for protesting the Kremlin’s military operation in Ukraine, has “temporarily” left the country. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/02/27/anti-war-human-rights-defenders-in-russia/

The 80-year-old former parliament member has been engaged in activism since the last years of the Soviet Union, helping create the now-dissolved Memorial organization in 1988. He said in a statement on Friday that worries about his personal safety, including “shadowy information about what they intended to do to me,” have forced him to take a break abroad.

I doubt that my leave of absence will last long,” said Ponomarev, whose name has been added to Moscow’s list of “foreign agents” in Russia.

Ponomarev did not disclose his new location, saying only that he continued to closely follow the “worrying” news in Russia.

Ponomarev confirmed his departure on the same day fellow Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza appeared before investigators on charges of spreading false information about Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, according to his lawyer. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/04/14/human-rights-defender-vladimir-kara-murza-arrested-in-russia/]

The charge, which falls under a new law introduced after Russia’s Feb. 24 launch of the campaign, could see Kara-Murza, 40, jailed for up to 15 years. Kara-Murza was due to appear in a Moscow court later Friday, Interfax said.

Colleague activist Ronald Airapetyan: //www.rferl.org/a/russia-activist-asylum-netherlands/31823471.html

See also re Mikhail Nesvat: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-activist-asylum-united-states-crackdown/31833981.html

https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/04/22/veteran-rights-defender-ponomarev-leaves-russia-a77467

Foreign Agents Law now also threatens to come to El Salvador

February 9, 2022

Devon Kearney in NPQ of 8 February 2022, reports on a worrying legislative development in El Salvador….

It has been nearly a decade since the Russian government passed its “foreign agent law,” a measure that requires nonprofit groups that engage in political activity to register with the government if they receive money from overseas. Russia justified the bill by saying it was based on a U.S. law—a statute from the lead-up to World War II that many of us came to know only after Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was accused of being an unregistered foreign agent. Putin’s message was that this was just an ordinary, even boring regulatory measure.

But it is more than that. Initial concerns focused on the stigma of being branded a foreign agent, but the law has sharper teeth, allowing the government to fine or even ban organizations that do not accept being branded as foreign agents. For example, on December 28, 2021, the government presented its case for disbanding the storied human rights organization Memorial for failing to include the disclaimer “produced by a foreign agent” on a few of its web pages. At the end of the hearing, the court ordered the Memorial to shut down. See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/12/29/russias-supreme-court-orders-closure-emblematic-memorial/

The sinister brilliance of the foreign agent law is twofold. First, it targets human rights NGOs’ supply lines, as it were, making it difficult to accept the funds they need to survive. In much of the world, human rights defenders rely on support from global philanthropies like the Open Society Foundations for the funding they need to operate. By the standards of Russia’s law, most would be required to register as foreign agents. Groups that take foreign money would be subject to government meddling and harassment; those that opted to do without would struggle to keep their doors open.

Second, the law accomplishes this by co-opting legitimate regulatory functions of the state to crush dissent. Setting the rules for nonprofits—along with corporations, lobbyists, and a wide range of activities that impact the public good—is something governments are supposed to do. The great innovation of Putin and the autocrats that followed him was to turn regulatory schemes into instruments of their own political dominance. By obviating the need for violence against opponents, these methods may avoid the consequences of harsher exercises of state power. They are key to creating, in the words of Hungarian semi-dictator Viktor Orbán, an “illiberal democracy,” a state where elections continue but the rights and liberties of the people are curtailed.

The world took notice when the Russian foreign agent law passed and, today, more than fifty countries have adopted laws based on the Russian example. One of the latest, introduced in November 2021 and still under debate, has an ominous twist. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/17/nicaragua-things-getting-worse-and-worse-for-human-rights-defenders-covid-19-and-foreign-agents/ as well as https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2016/06/17/un-rapporteurs-urge-india-to-repeal-law-restricting-human-rights-defenders-access-to-foreign-funding/

Under 38-year-old President Nayib Bukele, a charismatic young politician, El Salvador has taken a sharp turn toward authoritarianism. Bukele made headlines in February 2020 when he brought armed soldiers into Congress to stand behind him as he demanded funding for the military. He has since fired prosecutors and judges in order to pack the legal system with loyalists. Bukele is the latest in a growing number of modernized dictators who adopt the tactics but not the swagger of their forebears. But his style is distinctive. In the Journal of Democracy, Salvadoran political scholar Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez writes: “Bukele relies on millennial authoritarianism, a distinctive political strategy that combines traditional populist appeals, classic authoritarian behavior, and a youthful and modern personal brand built primarily via social media.”

Bukele’s authoritarian moves have raised alarms among Salvadoran civil society and around the world. The US has expressed its concern by hitting the government in the pocketbook: in May 2021, the United States Agency for International Development announced that it would pull funding from the Salvadoran police and other national agencies, instead directing the funds to civil society groups carrying out local development projects. More recently, USAID Administrator Samantha Power said the agency would commit $300 million for direct civil society funding in Central America, and promised to increase the amount of funding bypassing national governments to 50 percent within 10 years.

All of this is in keeping with Power’s stated intention to provide aid to developing nations with a local, “bottom up” approach that prioritizes small businesses over big international contractors, and local civil society groups over national governments—“[t]o engage authentically with local partners and to move toward a more locally led development approach,” as she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2021.

But in a region where US interference has long rankled rulers and their people, the move may be seen as ham-fisted—taking aid money to support opponents of a duly-elected government brings to mind the ways in which our country funded proxy wars that killed hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and left a bloody trail in Nicaragua and Guatemala, as well. More recently, in 2019 the Trump Administration slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the region in the hopes that by increasing financial pain it could pressure countries to take harsher measures to prevent their people from fleeing to the U.S.

With this history as a pretext, and perhaps stinging at this new reduction in aid funding, Bukele’s government struck back. On November 9, 2021, the government introduced a bill to require domestic nonprofits or social enterprises (solely commercial enterprises are exempted) to register as foreign agents if they “respond to the interests of, or are directly or indirectly funded by, a foreigner.”

That the Legislative Assembly is even considering such a restrictive bill sends a chilling message to human rights groups and organizations fighting against impunity and corruption,” says Ricardo González Bernal, the Fund for Global Human Rights’ Program Director for Latin America. The Fund supports grassroots human rights defenders and independent journalism in El Salvador, across Central America, and throughout the world.

https://nonprofitquarterly.org/salvadoran-foreign-agent-law-threatens-human-rights-movements/

Russia’s Supreme Court orders closure emblematic Memorial

December 29, 2021

As feared in November (see blog post below) Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday 28 December 2021 ordered the closure of Memorial International, one of the country’s most respected human rights organizations, wiping out three decades of work to expose the abuses and atrocities of the Stalinist era. Memorial is the winner of at least 7 international human rights awards: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/BD12D9CE-37AA-7A35-9A32-F37A0EA8C407

The court ruled that Memorial International had fallen afoul of Russia’s “foreign agent” law. But the group said the real reason for the shutdown was that authorities did not approve of its work.

The ruling is the latest blow to Russia’s hollowed-out civil society organizations, which have gradually fallen victim to Putin’s authoritarian regime.

Videos posted on social media showed Memorial supporters shouting, “Shame, shame!” in the court’s hallways and at the entrance to the building shortly after the ruling. Seven people were detained outside the courthouse following the proceedings, according to independent monitoring group OVD-Info. The organization said three of them are believed to be instigators whose sole aim was to cause havoc, not support Memorial.

Memorial International’s lawyer, Tatiana Glushkova, confirmed the ruling to CNN and said the group would appeal the decision. “The real reason for Memorial’s closure is that the prosecutor’s office doesn’t like Memorial’s work rehabilitating the victims of Soviet terror,” Glushkova told CNN.

The Prosecutor General’s Office of Russia requested Memorial International be liquidated in November. The group was accused of repeatedly breaking the law for failing to mark all its publications with a compulsory “foreign agent” warning. The Justice Ministry had designated the group a foreign agent in 2016, using a law targeting organizations receiving international funding.

Memorial’s representatives argued there were no legal grounds for the group’s closure, and critics say the Russian government targeted Memorial for political reasons.

Oleg Orlov, a member of Memorial International’s board, said the court’s decision was “purely ideological” and “a demonstrative, blatant, illegal decision.”

“Allegedly, we do not assess the Soviet Union and Soviet history the right way. But this is our assessment, we have the right to do it,” Orlov told CNN.

Memorial was founded in the late 1980s to document political repressions carried out under the Soviet Union, building a database of victims of the Great Terror and gulag camps. The Memorial Human Rights Centre, a sister organisation that campaigns for the rights of political prisoners and other causes, is also facing liquidation for “justifying terrorism and extremism”. One of the group’s co-founders was Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, who went on to be the first honorary chairman of the Memorial Society.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/28/russian-court-memorial-human-rights-group-closure

https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/-erasing-history—russia-closes-top-rights-group–capping-year-of-crackdowns/47222634

On 22 March 2022: https://www.rferl.org/a/memorial-appeal-denied/31765088.html

It had to happen: Russian Authorities Move to Shut Down Memorial

November 12, 2021
On the night before the infamous “foreign agents” law came into force back in 2012, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, “Foreign Agent! ♥ USA” on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial. 
On the night before the infamous “foreign agents” law came into force back in 2012, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, “Foreign Agent! ♥ USA” on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial.  © 2012 Yulia Klimova/Memorial

On 12 November 2021Tanya Lokshina, Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division Human RightsWatch, reported that the Russian authorities have moved to shut down Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most prominent rights organization, an outrageous assault on the jugular of Russia’s civil society.

Memorial, which defends human rights, works to commemorate victims of Soviet repression, and provides a platform for open debate, has two key entities: Memorial Human Rights Center and International Memorial Society.[ the winners of not less than 7 human rights awards, see : https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/BD12D9CE-37AA-7A35-9A32-F37A0EA8C407]

On November 11, International Memorial received a letter from Russia’s Supreme Court stating that the Prosecutor General’s Office had filed a law suit seeking their liquidation over repeated violations of the country’s legislation on “foreign agents.”

A court date to hear the prosecutor’s case is set for November 25. According to Memorial, the alleged violations pertain to repeated fines against the organization for failure to mark some of its materials — including event announcements and social media posts — with the toxic and false “foreign agent” label, one of the pernicious requirements of the “foreign agents” law.

On November 12, Memorial Human Rights Center received information from the Moscow City Court that the Moscow City Prosecutor’s Office filed a similar suit against them and a court hearing was pending.  

For nearly a decade, Russian authorities have used the repressive legislation on “foreign agents” to restrict space for civic activity and penalize critics, including human rights groups. Last year parliament adopted new laws harshening the “foreign agent” law and expanding it in ways that could apply to just about any public critic or activist. The amendments were but a fraction of a slew of repressive laws adopted in the past year aimed at shutting down criticism and debate. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/foreign-agent-law/

The number of groups and individuals authorities have designated as “foreign agents” has soared in recent months. This week the Justice Ministry included on the foreign agent registry the Russian LGBT Network, one of Russia’s leading lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights groups, which had worked to evacuate dozens of LGBT people from Chechnya. The ministry also listed Ivan Pavlov, a leading human rights lawyer, and four of his colleagues, as “foreign agent-foreign media.” See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/11/10/ngo-lgbt-network-and-5-human-rights-lawyers-branded-foreign-agents-in-russia/

Even against this backdrop, to shut down Memorial, one of Russia’s human rights giants, is a new Rubicon crossed in the government’s campaign to stifle independent voices.

This move against Memorial is a political act of retaliation against human rights defenders. Russian authorities should withdraw the suits against Memorial immediately, and heed a long-standing call to repeal the legislation on “foreign agents” and end their crackdown on independent groups and activists.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/11/12/russian-authorities-move-shut-down-human-rights-giant#

https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/11/17/memory-and-memorial-will-prevail-a75588

NGO ‘LGBT-Network’ and 5 human rights lawyers branded “foreign agents” in Russia

November 10, 2021

Reacting to the news that LGBT-Network, a prominent Russian group defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, and five human rights lawyers from Komanda 29 have been added by the Ministry of Justice to its list of “foreign agents”, Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director, said:

“Beyond shameful, the justice ministry’s decision reveals that committed, principled lawyers defending the rights of people targeted in politically motivated cases and frontline LGBTI rights defenders are unwelcome and “foreign” in Putin’s Russia.

“LGBT-Network has exposed heinous crimes against gay men in Chechnya and helped evacuate people at risk to safety where they can speak about these atrocities. Now LGBT-Network is, itself, a victim of the persecution that is being increasingly targeted at all human rights defenders – openly, viciously and cynically.

“The authorities cite the need to protect “national interests” and resist “foreign influence” in their incessant destruction of Russia’s civil society. But what’s really in the national interest is to protect, uphold and respect all human rights for everyone. These reprisals against human rights defenders and civil society organizations must stop, and the ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organizations’ laws must be repealed immediately.”

Late on 8 November, the Russian Ministry of Justice included the LGBT-Network and five lawyers from the recently dissolved human rights group, Komanda 29 (Team 29), including its founder Ivan Pavlov, a prominent lawyer, on the list of “foreign agents.” Ivan Pavlov and his colleagues have courageously provided help to civil society and political activists and groups that have been targeted by the authorities, including Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/11/19/russias-foreign-agents-bill-goes-in-overdrive/

The Russian LGBT-Network played a crucial role in the exposure of a brutal “anti-gay” campaign in Chechnya during which dozens of men were abducted, tortured and several believed to have been killed for their real or perceived sexual orientation. The group also provided shelter for victims of homophobic attacks from Chechnya and elsewhere around the country, and helped with their relocation to safer locations within and outside Russia.

Team 29, prominent legal defense group in Russia, folds under state pressure

July 24, 2021

Tanya Lokot on 21 July 2021 in Global Voices wrote about the closure of Team 29:

For almost seven years, Team 29 (Komanda 29), a group of independent lawyers, attorneys, advocacy experts and journalists, has fought for the rights of Russian activists, political prisoners, and other citizens. On July 19, the group announced it was shutting down its operations in order to protect its staff and clients from possible criminal prosecution. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/09/13/russian-human-rights-defenders-try-technology-and-gaming-innovations/

The decision to suspend their work comes after Russia’s internet regulator Roskomnadzor blocked Team 29’s website—allegedly, for publishing content produced by Spolecnost Svobody Informace (Freedom of Information Society), a Prague-based non-profit organisation which the Russian state had labelled as an “undesirable organisation” earlier in June 2021.

In a July 18 post on their Telegram channel, Team 29 said the Russian prosecutors had “conflated” the group with the Czech NGO (implying they were the same organisation), a charge that Team 29 denies.

While its lawyers plan to appeal the allegations as “arbitrary and contrived”, the group decided to act swiftly out of an abundance of caution to prevent further criminal charges against its staff, collaborators and supporters.

Under these circumstances, the continued activity of Team 29 poses a direct and obvious threat to the safety of many people, and we cannot ignore this risk. We are making the difficult decision to suspend the activity of Team 29. The attorneys and lawyers will continue to work on their client’s cases in a purely private capacity, unless the defendants refuse their services given the current situation.

We are closing all of the Team 29 media projects and purging the archive: all (!) texts, guides, reports, investigations, legal explainers, stories of political prisoners, court documents, interviews, podcasts, our literary project, our social media posts—the existence of this content online can be construed as “disseminating materials of an undesirable organisation” according to the logic that was used to block our website.

In their Telegram statement, the group also implored its supporters to delete any direct links or reposts of their content, as these could be interpreted as participating in the activity of an “undesirable organisation”. However, mentioning the organisation or sharing opinions about the situation was not illegal, according to the team.

Additionally, Team 29 said it was shutting down its crowdfunding efforts, and would refund subscribers for any funds that were unspent.

The founder of Team 29, Saint Petersburg-based lawyer Ivan Pavlov, is himself currently under investigation and facing felony charges for his work defending Russian journalist Ivan Safronov who is accused of treason. Though he now heads Team 29, Pavlov was previously the inaugural president of the Czech NGO, but hasn’t been involved with the Freedom of Information Society in any official capacity for the past five years.

Though it’s their digital footprint that is facing pressure from the authorities, Team 29 is best known for their legal support and human rights work in Russia. Writing on his own Telegram channel, Ivan Pavlov argued that it was this work on the ground, defending Russian citizens, that got Team 29 in trouble:

Our authorities have done everything to criminalize the activity and even our very name, Team 29. This is a peculiar sort of recognition of the effectiveness of our work and a compliment from our procedural opponents, who once again have been exhibiting unsportsmanlike behavior.

Founded in 2014 by Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer and freedom of information advocate, Team 29 has long been a thorn in Kremlin’s side. After authorities blacklisted Pavlov’s previous organisation, Institute for the Development of the Freedom of Information, as a “foreign agent”, Team 29 was born.

Since then, the group of defense lawyers, attorneys and reporters has taken on some of the most high-profile political cases in the country, including the trial of scientist Viktor Kudryavtsev on treason charges, the court battle around the designation of Alexey Navalny’s political movement and anti-corruption organisation as “extremist,” and the case of Karina Tsurkan, a former energy executive who was sentenced to 15 years in prison on espionage charges in December 2020.

Apart from defending political prisoners and activist groups in court, Team 29 has also published legal advice guides (archival link), spearheaded creative anti-corruption investigations, and even provided legal representation for a whistleblower from the infamous “troll factories” who took their Internet Research Agency to court in a labour dispute.

In an interview to independent Russian news website Meduza, Evgeny Smirnov, a lawyer formerly with Team 29, said that the latest events were likely “a cumulative effect” of all of their high-profile work. He said both he and Pavlov have received threats implying they were “like a bone in the throat not only for investigators, but also other people and state agencies”, so “that is why the decision was made to bomb us with everything they have”.

Despite the closure of their website, the group said its individual group members would continue their ongoing legal defense work as private individuals. According to Ivan Pavlov‘s Telegram post, Team 29 was “never a formal organisation, but rather a collective of like-minded people” and that “as long as there are people, there will be new ideas and new projects”.

Five individuals now listed as foreign agents in Russia

January 11, 2021

On 8 January, 2021 RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service reports on a worrying development in Russia: On 28 December, Russia said it had placed five people — three journalists who contribute to RFE/RL and two human rights activists — on the Justice Ministry’s registry of “foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent.” Previously, only foreign-funded NGOs had been placed on the registry, in keeping with Russia’s passage of its controversial “foreign agents law” in 2012. The law was later expanded to include media outlets and independent journalists [SEE: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/11/19/russias-foreign-agents-bill-goes-in-overdrive/]

The three listed individuals affiliated with RFE/RL are Lyudmila Stavitskaya and Sergei Markelov, freelance correspondents for the North Desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service; and Denis Kamalyagin, editor in chief of the online news site Pskov Province and a contributor to RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

Prominent human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2013/06/25/russian-ngo-for-human-rights-forcibly-evicted-from-offices/]was also named to the registry, as was activist and Red Cross worker Daria Apakhonchich.

On December 29, the ministry expanded the list again, adding the Nasiliu.net human rights center, which deals with domestic violence cases. The additions bring the total number of individuals or entities listed to 18, the majority of them affiliated with RFE/RL.

Two international rights organisations have expressed concerns:

The UN Human Rights Office regrets the inclusion of the five individuals in the foreign agents list, which targets human rights defenders and journalists and appears to be aimed at limiting their freedom of expression and speech,” Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office, said in a comment to RFE/RL on January 8.

The Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media added in a separate comment that the move “narrows the space for freedom of expression, freedom of the media, and free flow of information in the Russian Federation.

The Justice Ministry did not explain on what grounds it included the recent additions of the five individuals and one entity to the registry.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based rights group, called the law “devastating” for local NGOs, saying more than a dozen had been forced to close their doors.

RFE/RL has said it is “reprehensible” that professional journalists were among the first individuals singled out by Russia as “foreign agents.”

The Council of Europe also has expressed concerns over situation, saying that the foreign agent law in general — “stifles the development of civil society and freedom of expression.”

https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-foreign-agents-list-united-nations-regrets/31038877.html

Nicaragua: things getting worse and worse for human rights defenders: COVID-19 and foreign agents

October 17, 2020
The New Humanitarian of 2 September 2020 carried a special feature on Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega is making life increasingly hard for aid and human rights groups in Nicaragua even as poverty, malnutrition, and emigration due to political strife are on the rise, and as he is criticised for a dismissive and reckless response to the coronavirus outbreak. Moreover, a new law for the regulation of “foreign agents” was passed on 15 October.

“In Nicaragua, simply existing as a person carries a risk,” Ana Quirós, director of the Center for Information and Advisory Services in Health, or CISAS, told The New Humanitarian. “You do not need a particular reason to become a victim of violence, of repression, kidnapping or assassination. It is a general risk.

Quirós was deported and stripped of citizenship in November 2018 after the government accused CISAS, which had been working on health education and HIV prevention in Nicaragua with the support of several international aid groups and actors – including Medico International, Medicus Mundi, and the EU – of “participating in destabilising activities”.

Quirós said individuals still working with aid and civic groups in the country are under great threat, and that several people who had been working with CISAS in Nicaragua since it was banned had been forced to flee the Central American country.

It has been during this pandemic that the absence of the NGOs has been most strongly felt, especially for us working in health,” the CISAS director said. “The government hasn’t made any efforts regarding communication, training, education in health, and with regard to the other basic human rights of the population,” Quirós said. “The population is very unprotected, and is hungry for information and real knowledge about the risks and measures that one needs to take to prevent illnesses.

Forty years after Ortega led a socialist revolution to uproot the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, Nicaragua continues to be burdened by a host of humanitarian concerns, albeit as it isolates itself from international aid institutions.

Under the government leadership of Ortega and his influential wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, the country remains one of the poorest in Latin America, while the violent repression of political opponents since April 2018 has generated a migration crisis proportionately comparable to that of Venezuela. After Ortega’s re-election in 2006, Nicaragua’s poverty rate fell, following a similar trend throughout Latin America, but an independent report published at the end of 2019 estimates that it has since soared, and that roughly a third of the population, or more than two million people, now live on less than $1.76 per day.

According to the World Food Programme, 17 percent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition, with the rate at nearly 30 percent – similar to humanitarian crisis settings such as Somalia – in Nicaragua’s northern provinces, which form part of Central America’s dry corridor. In 2019, WFP provided assistance to 45,000 people in Nicaragua affected by the seasonal climate change-linked emergency.

Due to severe restrictions on free assembly and expression, it is probable that protection and humanitarian needs are under-reported in Nicaragua,” ACLED wrote in an email to TNH. “It is clear from current political violence and demonstration trends in Nicaragua – particularly amid the pandemic – that the situation requires urgent attention from international humanitarian actors.

Demonstrations initially flared in April 2018 against a social security reform, which has since been scrapped. They later morphed into broader political unrest as the government responded with heavy-handed measures against student protesters, and as dissatisfaction grew at government corruption and the Ortegas’ increasingly autocratic rule.

The ensuing government crackdown led to the deaths of hundreds of people – the government set the number at 197, while human rights groups say it was at least 325 – and drove more than 103,000 people to seek asylum abroad. Most fled to neighbouring Costa Rica, where at least 400,000 Nicaraguans had already been living.

In July, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned the ongoing repression in the country two years after the initial protests, listing a litany of government offences between March and June, including arbitrary arrests, house searches without warrants, and detentions, threats, and intimidation.

Line graph of demonstrations in Nicaragua, 2019-2020

Human rights violations continue to be documented against those who the government perceives as opponents, including human rights defenders, journalists, social leaders, and former political detainees,” Bachelet reported.

The crushing of the opposition included, in 2019, the revocation of the legal status of a number of civil society groups and local NGOs – the Nicaragua Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH) and CISAS among them.

Here, one cannot organise trade unions or teachers. One cannot organise any group that is not under the auspice of the regime,” Monica Baltodano, director of the Popol Na Foundation, another of the banned groups, told the independent news site Confidencial last December.

….Vice-President Murillo told Nicaraguans that the country was under divine protection, while officials ordered medical staff not to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) in order not to scare patients. In July, 25 doctors were fired for signing a letter critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic. It asked simply that health workers should not be persecuted and that they be allowed to use PPE.

After the United States and the EU imposed financial sanctions on Nicaraguan officials last year, 65 of the 148 officially recognised political prisoners were released from prison in December. Further sanctions have been imposed since, including on a second son of the presidential couple. But international political pressure has routinely been countered by the message that Nicaragua will manage on its own.

International aid groups and agencies have also experienced government pressure as it attempts to influence and define their roles. Ever since Ortega resumed the presidency in 2007, the organisations have had to operate with increasing care, former aid workers familiar with the country told TNH.

In 2015, the United Nations Development Programme was told by the government that it was no longer needed as an intermediary between donors and those executing development projects. Without providing further details, the authorities said the agency and its country chief were accused of “political meddling”, and of maintaining a “hidden agenda”.

UNDP told TNH at the end of July that its operations in Nicaragua were now “limited” and that it did not have a resident representative or a deputy representative. The UN agency did not respond to requests for further comment on the situation in the country.

In 2018, the government expelled a UN human rights team after the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights requested an immediate end to the persecution of political opponents and called for the disarming of masked civilians responsible for a string of killings and detentions. Soon after, two missions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) investigating violence during the anti-government protests were also thrown out.

As COVID-19 cases appear to mount, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) – the regional wing of the World Health Organization – has urged the government to take stronger measures to curb the spread of the virus.

PAHO continues to await authorisation to send a team of experts to evaluate the situation. Since the beginning of the outbreak, it has donated PPE to the health ministry, while repeatedly stating that the official COVID-19 data provided is incomplete.

In spite of donations from various international sources, doctors have argued that distribution of masks and other PPE items remains inadequate. As of 26 August, Citizen’s COVID-19 Observatory estimated that 107 health workers in Nicaragua had died from the coronavirus…

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the few international aid groups with a presence in Nicaragua, has offered its support to help with the release of what human rights groups estimate – following the protest crackdown – to be more than 6,000 political prisoners.

In a written statement to TNH, the organisation said: “The ICRC returned permanently to Nicaragua in 2018. We have been visiting detention sites since 2019, and in November 2019 renewed our host country agreement. We can develop our humanitarian action with openness, in dialogue with the authorities and civil society, according to our humanitarian principles and working methods.”

Last Thursday 15 October Nicaragua’s National Assembly approved the law for the regulation of ‘foreign agents “. The law requires any Nicaraguan citizen working for “governments, companies, foundations or foreign organizations” to register with the Interior Ministry, report monthly their income and spending and provide prior notice of what the foreign funds will be spent on. The law establishes sanctions for those who do not register. Once registered as “foreign agents,” those Nicaraguans may not “finance or promote the financing of any type of organization, movement, political party, coalition or political alliance or association” that gets involved in Nicaragua’s internal politics.

https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2020/09/02/Nicaragua-conflict-political-unrest-poverty-coronavirus

Nicaragua passes controversial ‘foreign agent’ law

Russia’s “foreign agents” bill goes in overdrive

November 19, 2019