Persecution of rural protest movement leaders continue as crisis deepens in Nicaragua

  • Three campesino environmental activists mistreated in detention, awaiting trial
  • UN report confirms continued targeting of campesino leaders by government
  • UN staff expelled from Nicaragua after UN report on protesters’ rights abuses
  • More than 320 people killed since violent crackdown on protests began in April
  • Global rights groups urge authorities to drop all charges, release campesino leaders

Three leaders of a rural farmers protest movement in Nicaragua who were arrested in recent months for organising peaceful demonstrations in defence of their rights, remain detained.

The National Council for the Defence of LandLake and Sovereignty (Consejo Nacional en defensa de la Tierra, el Lago y la Soberania, a campesino (peasant farmer) movement, say their leaders have also been mistreated while in custody, awaiting trial.

The persecutions are part of an ongoing government campaign to crush protests by Nicaraguans against the construction of an Inter-Oceanic canal by a Chinese company – a project that threatens campesino lives, livelihoods, land, water and environment. The latest detention is part of ongoing judicial harassment of the leaders, who were detained after adding their voices to the widespread protests against the government which began in April.

In the latest arrest on August 12, one of the movement’s leader Victor Manuel Diaz was detained in the province of Rio San Juan. A month earlier, the organisation’s coordinator,  Medardo Mairena was arrested and detained at an airport in the capital, Managua, on his way to participate in solidarity events in the United States. Rural activist leader Pedro Joaquín Mena, who was traveling with Mairena,  was  also arrested and detained. The two are accused of terrorism, organised crime, murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery, obstruction of public services, injuries and damage to property.  

Medardo’s detention as a prominent member of the campesino movement, is one of the most emblematic cases of criminalisation of environmental human rights defenders in Nicaragua.  The country has been in crisis since protests against the government began in April. National human rights organizations have called Medardo’s arrest and detention arbitrary and a product of the political persecution of the government.

The three leaders have been organising peaceful protests since 2014 to demand that the State repeals the Law 840 – legislation that grants a Chinese company a concession to build, manage and operate an inter-oceanic canal that will have a catastrophic impact on the environment and surrounding communities. The rural movement has organized more than 40 local and more than 100 national marches against the law.

Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, said that the increasingly repressive environment in Nicaragua and the systematic targeting of leaders of the campesino movement violates Nicaragua’s international human rights obligations.

“The detention and prosecution of these three peasant leaders is extremely worrying. Speaking up peacefully and mobilizing citizens to protect their environment is not a crime,” said CIVICUS’ Natalia Gomez.

“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is enshrined in Nicaragua’s constitution as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Gomez.

Henry Ruiz, a member of the campesino movement, currently in hiding, denounced that families have been prevented from seeing the detained leaders. “Since his detention in July, Mainera’s family has only been able to see him once, through a polarized window” said Ruiz

He also denounces that the three men are held in detention centers with pests and without proper sanitation and toilets and have been subjected to mistreatment in custody. The families of the detained leaders continue receiving threats, according to Ruiz.

The Nicaraguan government earlier this week claimed that the situation had returned to “normal” while a United Nations Security Council discussion today highlighted the "critical situation" unfolding in Nicaragua.  Students, human rights defenders and journalists have also been targeted during the crisis.

In a concerning move, United Nations staff is reportedly being expelled from Nicaragua following the release last week of a scathing human rights office report that details human rights violations and abuses, committed between April 18 and August 18, in connection with the protests.

The report says that some 2 000 people have been injured and at least 300 are being prosecuted for participating in or supporting protests, on charges that include terrorism and organized crime. It also confirmed that members of the campesino and student movements have been specially targeted by the authorities.

“With the expulsion of the UN, we are particularly concerned about the lack of international monitoring of the situation from within the country and the lack of guarantees for the safety of victims of violence,” said Gomez.

CIVICUS calls on the authorities in Nicaragua to drop all charges against Medardo Mairena, Pedro Joaquín Mena, and Victor Manuel Diaz, and release them safely. CIVICUS also calls for the release of all the rural leaders, students and activists currently detained for exercising their right to protest.

Nicaragua has been added to a watchlist of countries which are experiencing an alarming escalation in threats to fundamental freedoms. The watchlist is compiled by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe.   

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Natalia Gomez

Networks and Engagament officer, CIVICUS


Grant Clark

Senior media advisor, CIVICUS