Women Working for Political Prisoners Harassed : Sandinistas Try to Curb Rights Group

Times Staff Writer

When Sandinista leaders were jailed in the 1970s during their insurgency against the Somoza family dictatorship, relatives and supporters carried out public protests demanding their freedom.

"We had hunger strikes, we beat on cooking pots, we demonstrated in the markets, we even waved the Sandinista flag on television," recalls Tomasa Hernandez, whose uncle was then in prison for the guerrilla cause.

Today, after nearly eight years of rule by the Sandinistas, Hernandez is leading a similar campaign, this time against them, on behalf of nearly 10,000 prisoners, including her husband, now in Nicaraguan jails.

Avoiding Own Tactics

But as an activist in the new movement for amnesty and prisoners' rights, she finds that the Sandinistas are determined to avoid being undermined by the same tactics that helped bring them to power.

In recent weeks, the state security police have moved quietly to try to break up the organization, known as the Jan. 22 Movement of Mothers of Political Prisoners.

Twice, Hernandez said, undercover agents have visited her home and threatened to arrest her unless she leaves the movement. But she persists.

In interviews and complaints filed in Nicaraguan courts, six other women who helped organize the movement said they have been harassed and threatened. Some said their new activism has led to their jailed relatives being punished.

Despite being targeted by security agents, ignored by the government-controlled press and blocked by the police from attempts to march in the streets, the movement is growing. More than 1,200 women have signed up and attended three assemblies.

Interior Minister Tomas Borge acknowledged the group's existence at a news conference earlier this month. But he said it "has not received real support from the relatives of prisoners" because most of them regard the government as a protector.

"Who is more interested in prison conditions than we are?" he asked.

Since the movement began, the government's human rights commission has asked President Daniel Ortega to free 618 prisoners, the largest group ever considered for pardon by the Sandinistas.

Some opposition leaders say the pardon list was expanded in response to the women's activism and their determination to risk reprisals.

"This kind of movement is inconceivable in a Communist country, but the Sandinistas haven't been able to stop it," said Enrique Sotelo Borgen, a Conservative Party lawyer who advises the group. "The government is afraid of these women because they are so desperate."

Many of the women are relatives of former national guardsmen who fought for President Anastasio Somoza and were imprisoned after his downfall in 1979. Others have family members jailed on charges of collaborating with U.S.-backed contras fighting the Sandinistas since 1981.

Turned Against Regime

A smaller number of prisoners, like Hernandez's husband, are former Sandinistas who turned against the revolution's leftward course.

The women met while waiting in lines outside prison during visiting hours. At least two developments spurred them to organize.

First, the pardon of American gunrunner Eugene Hasenfus in December inspired hundreds of pardon requests on behalf of jailed Nicaraguans. Hasenfus, aboard a plane carrying supplies to the contras which was shot down last October, was freed in a peace gesture after a people's court sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

Meanwhile, jails have become more overcrowded as army sweeps of rural war zones add hundreds of suspected rebel supporters to the growing backlog of cases awaiting trial by a people's tribunal on state security charges. The waiting periods average eight months.

Wilma Nunez de Escorcia, president of the government's Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, said there were 9,520 prison inmates in Nicaragua as of Jan. 1 and a third of them had not been tried. She said 2,326 prisoners are former national guardsmen and about 1,500 others are rebel suspects. The independent Permanent Human Rights Commission places the number of security prisoners at about 7,000.

Leaders of the movement first met to draft a letter to the secretaries general of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, who visited Managua on a peace mission in January.

Prison Conditions Hit

The letter, with 96 signatures, denounced what it claimed were "unjust and cruel" prison conditions--physical and psychological torture, political indoctrination and long periods of isolation in dark cells.

It said "internal political tension" was the fundamental cause of the war and it proposed a general amnesty and an end to the five-year-old state of emergency and abolition of the people's tribunal.

Three days later the signers and others met at the headquarters of the opposition Social Christian Party and drew up a charter. Several organizers are party members but say they want to keep the movement nonpartisan.

The police crackdown started right after the meeting when Erick Ramirez, the party's president, was briefly jailed.

Hernandez said security policemen warned her that the movement is "illegal and counterrevolutionary" and asked her to spy for them on its activities. She said she was told that a special prison wing was being prepared "for all you crazy ladies."

Husband in Isolation

She said her husband, who suffers from nervous disorders and an ulcer, told her during a recent visit that he was isolated and put in chains for three days as punishment for her activism.

Genoveva Ramos, another activist in the movement, said an official at state security headquarters told her: "If we let all the prisoners go, they will overthrow us."

A woman who asked not to be identified by name said she was taken to the El Chipote interrogation center in February and held in a dark cell for eight hours while five men questioned her about the movement's leaders and its activities.

Concepcion Salazar Gonzalez, a midwife, said she joined the movement to help get her 23-year-old son out of prison. Since then, she said, her son has been transferred to a secret cell and her 21-year-old son-in-law has been arrested.

When she went to security police headquarters to ask about them, Salazar said, she was told to sign a false confession that she had performed surgery on wounded rebel soldiers. She refused.

4 Pressured to Quit

"An official began to insult me," she said. "He said he knew I was demanding amnesty for prisoners. He said the only thing that would come of this is that I would never see my two boys again."

Four of the movement's 11 steering committee members have quit under police pressure, according to women who are still active. But all those interviewed said they will continue with the work.

"The only way to confront this dictatorship is to go forward, even if they come down harder on us," Hernandez said.

Nunez, the president of the government's human rights commission, called the movement "a political pressure group" led by opposition parties with insignificant public support. She said the women's grievances could be studied individually.

"If these women are being harassed they can come to us for help," she said. "So far, they have not come."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World