How to Defend Nicaragua’s Political Prisoners in a Rigged System
Human rights lawyer Julio Montenegro represented many of the hundreds of political prisoners freed this week. He’s not satisfied.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s trying to bring back rule of law to a country in crisis.
Julio Montenegro had been a largely under-the-radar legal force representing Nicaraguan political prisoners until one day in October, when he let his indignation shine.
Montenegro, 56, protested to a judge that she was not allowing him to defend his case per due process. She told him he was unprepared, and in an effort to make him look incompetent, she offered to postpone the hearing to give him more time. Montenegro, surrounded by guards wielding AK-47s and unaware he was being broadcast on state TV channels, responded: “I have enough training. This is a matter of knowledge of the law and that’s what I’m claiming, not a lack of preparation. I remind you: I was your teacher at judicial school.”
Prisoners later told Montenegro they were watching from the court’s galleries and began pounding the tables, cheering and yelling, “That’s my lawyer!”
When Montenegro left the courthouse that day, he discovered he had become a meme. The video had gone viral and was remixed endlessly, including one version that features Montenegro dropping the dis as the hook comes in for rapper Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What.”
"Le recuerdo: Fui su docente en la escuela judicial"
-Dr. Julio Montenegro pic.twitter.com/mHqauTvhoX
— Ricardo Zambrana (@Zambranitis) October 2, 2018
Montenegro quickly attained fame unusual for lawyers. People regularly stop him in the street, or honk and cheer as they drive by. His popular defiance reflects a country that’s been in crisis for more than a year.
Montenegro has worked constantly since May 2018 to free 80 people arrested for participating in a civic protest calling for Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to step down. In early June, the Nicaraguan government, under pressure of heavy international sanctions, approved a law to give amnesty to those who participated and free political prisoners, as the start of negotiations with the opposition.
There is a song that says that men shouldn’t cry, but I think it is difficult sometimes …
The state has called the movement a coup attempt planned by foreign powers. Edwin Castro, the leader of Ortega’s party in Congress, has called the amnesty law “an act of sovereignty that seeks peace and reconciliation.” By June 11, the government freed 456 political prisoners — some remain behind bars, though civil society groups differ on how many — with almost all of Montenegro’s clients walking free.
But Montenegro is not celebrating. He bitterly opposes the plan, as do the released prisoners and their families. They say it lets the government off the hook for its own crimes, and it should admit that his clients, along with the other 700 people arrested during the crisis, were innocent. Meanwhile, more than 60,000 are in exile and fear returning to the country. The United Nations and the U.S. government also have come out against the amnesty law, as it would impede the prosecution of extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances and torture.
Montenegro, along with opposition group Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco, is demanding that a transitional justice system be put in place to prosecute and investigate crimes committed during the conflict. “That part of the story is hard to erase,” Montenegro says. “When I remember them, it fills me with a feeling — well, there is a song that says that men shouldn’t cry, but I think it is difficult sometimes with the experience we lawyers who have been close to our clients have had, living a little bit of their story.”
Montenegro discovered his passion for law and justice covering the courts for the now-defunct newspaper La Tribuna. He began to study law in order to specialize as a legal reporter but discovered that he preferred to serve clients directly as a lawyer. He began to teach the very people he would later accuse of not respecting the rule of law and fight in the courts in judicial school in 2007 — including public prosecutors, officials from the national police and judges like Adela Cardoza, with whom he had his viral sparring match.
As political crisis consumed the country in 2018, Montenegro received a call from an old high school classmate, Marcos Carmona, who asked him to lead the team of lawyers at the Permanent Commission for Human Rights (CPDH in Spanish). He jumped at the opportunity to take on some of the biggest cases in the country. Collectively, the team represented half of those accused of terrorism in the wake of the protests.
Montenegro speaks rapidly in a calm but indignant tone, dripping with certainty in his facts and arguments. He quickly became a staple in the media, denouncing the government’s illegal conduct and human rights abuses. In all, 325 people were killed in clashes with security forces that became deadly when military weaponry was deployed against protesters, such as when snipers posted high on Managua’s baseball stadium began executing the participants of a Mother’s Day protest with precise head, chest and neck shots.
Montenegro’s clients include leaders of the movement along with top journalists. All of them have denounced serious violations of their rights in the courts and jails, from being held in sweltering solitary confinement with no airflow (farmworker leader Medardo Mariena) to brutal beatings and torture (student leader Edwin Carcache).
Prisoners regularly report avoiding the little food they are provided in prison because of contaminants like ground glass and cockroaches. That puts pressure on their families, who often have lost a breadwinner. “Sometimes [family members] go days without eating to be able to bring something to their prisoner. Those whose families cannot provide for them survive on what their cell neighbors share,” says Daniel Esquivel, founder of the Committee for the Liberation of Political Prisoners.
Every morning, throngs of family members, mostly women who have traveled from around the country, march up the hill with food packages to “El Chipote” prison in the middle of Managua, which Montenegro calls “the place par excellence where people are taken to be tortured.”
Ortega supporters congregated in the residential neighborhood outside the prison, blasting Sandinista party propaganda songs with melodies taken from popular songs. (“Even if it hurts you, my commander stays here. Daniel, Daniel, the people are with him …” goes one merengue tune written in the wake of the uprising.)
One resident living on the path to the prison, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, hung a flag at the beginning of the crisis so the women would know the house was a safe place where they could rest and shower during their waits to deliver food. But after receiving a slew of threats, the resident took down the flag and shut the doors. Montenegro says he has represented people who were in jail for giving food or water to protesters.
The lawyer knows his work is dangerous. He receives constant threats on social media and has been threatened and harassed in public on three occasions. Still, as one of the only people with direct access to prisoners, he played a critical role in dispersing information, retaining the “journalistic spirit” of his younger days, he says.
Even with his clients out, they will receive no retribution for injustices inflicted upon them. And they could all be back behind bars at any time for criticizing the government, which many of them did in public immediately upon being released. Christian Fajardo, for example, kissed his wife for the cameras at a street party while wearing a T-shirt reading “Fuck Ortega.”
Montenegro recently left CPDH to form an independent team of lawyers to work on cases involving criminalization of protest and the unjust firing of government employees for opposing Ortega. He wants to take his work one step further, wielding his celebrity status and courtroom experience to push for judicial reforms. It will take more than a few viral videos to get there.
Read more: One of Nicaragua’s most wanted refugees plots his comeback.