“We call on all the organizations and governments to join forces so that Ortega and Murillo can leave Nicaragua.” This was the plea of Dr. Sonia Picado, formerly a judge for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Dr. Picado recently helped preside over the Court of Conscience on Sexual Violence: Crimes against Humanity in Nicaragua. The Court announced its verdict on September 11, in San Jose, Costa Rica.
The Costa Rican jurist has a distinguished career. She’s received recognition in the region, and in the field of international law and the defense of human rights. Together with three other judges, she heard testimony from 18 Nicaraguans illegally detained and sexually abused by police and paramilitary. The panel of judges that heard the case also included Almudena Bernabeu, Clemencia Correa, and Alda Facio.
The abuse the victims described occurred after they were abducted for protesting against the Ortega government in 2018. Following their arbitrary detention, they were taken to the police centers and sexually abused.
The events occurred in the context of the civic insurrection that began in April 2018, demanding Daniel Ortega leave power. The police, in coordination with paramilitary forces armed with war weapons, mounted a lethal repression.
The state repression left the country deep in a socio-political crisis that still persists. The immediate toll was over 300 deaths, thousands of wounded, hundreds of political prisoners, and over 100,000 exiles, Nicaragua remains under a de facto police state. There are constant denunciations of harassment and imprisonment of opposition sympathizers.
The Tribunal’s verdict was conclusive. “The Nicaraguan state committed the crime of torture through the sexual abuse and rape of men and women. This occurred while they were in the custody of the country’s police and paramilitary.” It added: “Those tortures were committed systematically by state agents against the Nicaraguan civilian population. As such, they constitute a crime against humanity.”
Picado spoke with Confidencial about the affection she feels for Nicaragua and its people. She recalled her experience in the 1990 elections, in campaigns to promote voting. She explained the verdict she wrote and signed, together with the rest of the judges. Finally, she offered her opinion that Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo should leave power.
The connection to Nicaragua
You’ve been involved with Nicaragua for many years. Why did you decide to accept being part of this Court of Conscience?
Sonia Picado: Because I love Nicaragua very much. I worked hard for the fall of Somoza. Later, when the Sandinistas came, we Costa Ricans initially felt very supportive of their ideals. I had a hacienda very near Nicaragua, and I was among them.
Later came the elections (of 1990) and I spent a year going to Nicaragua nearly every week. There were people 90 years old who had never voted, there were a lot of people who couldn’t write. So, with the help of many governments, we came up with a series of things. There was a lot of international support for those elections. For example, they made up comic books for those who couldn’t read. The matter of the secret ballot was very important, because there was great fear of voting, and then receiving reprisals.
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I think that Nicaragua hasn’t had a truly calm transition process for many years. At that time,  we thought that the Sandinistas might possibly win the elections. Even so, if there was a clean and transparent electoral process, it was worth it. Surprisingly, Violeta Chamorro won. I have an award from Violeta and a lot of affection for her, a great person.
I was with the Center for Electoral Assistance and Promotion which serves as the secretariat for all America’s electoral tribunals. We worked intensively for there to be clean elections, and for an excellent electoral tribunal at that time.
I continue believing that a good, impartial electoral tribunal and holding elections is fundamental for any democratic process. As we saw in the report, the institutions are [currently] dominated by the Sandinistas, in a way that isn’t positive.
For free elections to happen, it’s important to have international missions present. It’s also important that there be support from other countries, and for Nicaraguans to feel comfortable going out to vote. Also, for a different presidency to be installed, because Ortega and Murillo can’t continue there indefinitely.
The testimonies of those who seek justice
Your vast professional career includes serving as a judge for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. You’ve overseen many cases of rape and abuse. What is your evaluation of the testimonies presented in this tribunal and what impacted you most?
Since it was a Court of Conscience, we can’t reveal who the victims were. It’s not like the [Inter-American Human Rights] Court, which today allows the witnesses to be present.
I hope that these cases will eventually arrive at that Court. What impacted me most is the similarity between the cruelty of this regime in Nicaragua and other regimes of torturers. For example, the Pinochet regime [in Chile]. Unfortunately, Latin America has a very sad and very difficult history of dictatorships. Not only is the torture and mistreatment similar, but also the regimes themselves, the terror they impose on the population. It’s this terror that allows them to stay on for years and years.
Beyond the State, could you identify those who are responsible?
Not at this time. It was a Court of Conscience, and we know that we don’t have the legal power to do this. The hope is that other organisms that do have such power can go forward. We also hope this case will go before the tribunals in Nicaragua.
To arrive at the international level, you have to pass through the national one. Later [the case can progress] to the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court. The type of crimes that were committed – for example, the rapes of victims – are crimes against humanity. Therefore, bringing them before the International Penal Court could be considered. But we don’t want to jump ahead. We need to go little by little, but with the certainty that something can be done. I believe that something must be done in Nicaragua.
The implications of a Court of Conscience
What value does this kind of court have in the field of international law and the defense of human rights? As you have said, it’s not binding, legally speaking. But does it have any impact on the victim’s search for justice?
We hope so. The idea of a moral tribunal is that you can say many things there. These are statements that other organisms, which do have legal jurisdiction, sometimes don’t dare to make. There’s already been a large impact. Newspapers across the world are asking for information, that we give them the sentence. Why? Because there’s a lot of interest in seeing oppressed people, people who are under a dictatorship, eventually get free. In that sense, the courts of conscience have a lot of strength.
In its conclusions, the court urged the international community to struggle against these human rights violations. It further asked governments and international organizations to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Nicaraguan regime. Why did you decide to include this call to action?
I believe that it’s very important to do so. It may seem strange, but there are still many organizations that defend Ortega’s regime. Many other organizations that could make legal determinations still don’t do so.
For that reason, we issued a call for all the organizations and governments to form a solid front. We asked them to exert pressure so that the Ortega Murillo pair can leave Nicaragua. Hopefully, through elections and in a more peaceful way than the horrors we’ve seen this time. (in 2018).
From what we’ve seen in history, these processes seeking justice take years, even decades. What would you tell the victims who offered their testimonies at this Court of Conscience?
It’s very frustrating that justice is generally very slow. I’m not talking only about international justice – national justice is frequently slow as well. Quick and complete justice doesn’t happen. In my case, I can attest to this as a former judge for the Inter-American Court. Years passed before a case reached us, and that was very frustrating and very sad for the victims.
But I believe that [the victims] must have faith in what they said, and what they did [testifying before the Court of Conscience]. It will have an impact, and that impact could evolve into something much greater and much more positive.
I believe that in the case of Nicaragua, today there’s a widespread rejection of dictatorships. Maybe we won’t have to wait for ten more years to go by. It’s possible that governments and organizations will unite long before this, to put the brakes on what’s happening in Nicaragua.