Sandinista Assembly Votes yes on “Victims’ Law.”

The Ortega-Murillo administration scored another legislative “win” this Wednesday, when the Sandinista majority at the National Assembly approved the government’s Ley de Atención Integral a Víctimas. This new law presents the government’s plan to offer services and support to victims “of the violent acts occurred since April of 2018” and their families.

Nicaraguans have been waiting for the new law since the government announced it via press release. The move fostered a great deal of conjecture about the law’s content, which no one had actually seen before this morning, because the Ortega-Murillo government described its project as one based on the “principles of forgiveness, remembrance, and non-repetition.”

Government Announcement of Victims’ Law

To many, that sounded like an amnesty. Soon enough, Nicaraguan independent media dubbed it “Ley del Perdón” — the Pardon Law — and speculated that it would extend a blanket amnesty to police and paramilitaries, for crimes against humanity.

In a way, the new law achieves an amnesty, albeit without explicitly legislating one. Instead, the Victims’ Law simply does not commit the government to investigate any and all crimes that occurred in the context of the protests and the violent government repression of dissenters.

Indeed, the Victims Law does not mention the words investigate, prosecute, non-repetition, or punish. In fact, though it refers to the “administration of justice”, the Law does not contemplate a role for the criminal justice system in a plan meant to deal with “the problems and needs of victims and their families,” who will be provided “attention and reparations.”

New Law Grants Priority Access to Rights Victims Already Have

The Ortega-Murillo government touted the new Victims’ Law as its response to the effects of the “failed coup” among Nicaraguans. According to the government, this new piece of legislation achieves reparation of harm, by granting “priority access” to government services and programs to victims and their families, as long as there is a budget available for these services. The services explicitly mentioned deal with health, education, work, entrepreneurship, housing, and recreation.

In other words, victims and their families will have priority access to services they already could use, since the Nicaraguan Constitution grants all Nicaraguans the right to equal access to health (Article 59), the right to work (Article 57), the right to education (Article 58), the right to dignified housing (Article 64), and the right to recreation and leisure (Article 65).

In fact, the Victims’ Law does not offer any new services to victims. In the area of health, for example, the government guarantees access to primary medical care, mental health, psychological services, services for people who are disabled, and rehabilitation. These services already exist. The only difference now is that victims will have priority access, though how this will operate in practice remains to be seen.

The Ortega-Murillo government slashed the Ministry of Health 2019 budget by 7.3%. In addition, the government fired over 200 health care workers in 2018, according to data compiled by Unidad Médica Nicaragüense and published in November. Under these circumstances, priority access for thousands of potential beneficiaries is likely to be limited.

In addition, Ortega-Murillo government pledges to “reinsert victims and their families into the national education system;” it offers scholarships to public educational institutions at all levels. The new law also guarantees “reinsertion of the victims and their families into the work force,” either through employment or through support of entrepreneurship, it grants priority access to housing programs, and and guaranteed free access to “public recreational facilities”, such as stadiums and leisure spaces.

In order to receive any of these benefits, victims and their families will have to be added to a “victims’ registry” to be managed by the Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (PDDH), the government’s office for Human Rights.

The PDDH has been thus far ineffective and hampered by partisanship. For example, in October, Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights Adolfo Jarquín Ortel told VOA that his office had investigated human rights violations in Nicaragua, and the proceeded to blame the bulk of them on people at “the tranques,” the barricades that protesters erected all over Nicaragua.

Jarquín said, “At those barricades, people were armed; there was violence; people could not get through without paying a toll. There were even rapes. They raped many women there. At one barricade, they raped fifteen women. We have proof of that.”

Then, in February, Jarquín travelled to Geneva for the 40th Session of the Human Rights Council. He read a prepared statement that dismissed allegations of torture in Nicaraguan prisons, for which he said there was “no evidence.”

Jarquín is second in the hierarchy at the PDDH, the very same institution that will be in charge of “organizing and updating the victims’ registry” and of “monitoring” the activities of all the other state institutions that will be involved in carrying out the government’s plan.

Unfortunately, the Victims Law does not offer any guidance as to who can be considered a victim, which leaves this very important matter up to the PDDH.

The new law will go into effect as soon as it is officially published in La Gaceta.