Nicaragua: Meet Vilma: Still not ready to stop fighting against torture in Nicaragua
Dec. 7, Managua (Nicaragua) – When
Vilma Núñez de
Escorcia gets up in the morning, she thinks
about the many things she has to do, the cases she still hasn’t managed to do
anything about. They are difficult cases to push through, because of their
complexity and the new evidence surfacing in the news every day.
work in human rights you really have to believe in them. It’s all uphill and
results are slow in coming,” she says.
“You need to have a personal motivation to keep going.”
boy, does she have it. Vilma, 77, has been heading the Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (CENIDH) for the past quarter of a century, assisting
civil society’s underprivileged populations and building the capacity to
protect and promote human rights. It is no leisurely occupation for this woman who only 10 years ago, was among
the 1,000 female nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to advance
human rights in her home country.
The first female magistrate in Nicaragua appointed
Vice-President of the Supreme Court from 1979 to 1987, Vilma pegs
her commitment to fighting for justice to the fact that she was born outside
marriage - a terrible thing at that time, which meant that she was barred from
the best religious secondary school and could not inherit as much as each of
her “legitimate” siblings. She is now thankful for what she then considered as
a “misfortune” as it made her realize how the legal system treated people
differently. This realization made her want to train as a lawyer specializing
in human rights and penal law.
didn’t’ want anyone else to suffer discrimination so I chose to become a
lawyer, to understand and stop it,” she explains.
remembers her first encounter with torture when she was seven or eight years
old. A man from her village, one Rito Jiménez, was reported disappeared.
A year later, in 1947, his body was found in a lime pit in the La Libertad
open-pit gold mine. She never forgot the image of that body all covered in lime,
like a white mummy, she says.
university she later learned of the many methods of torture when visiting two
professors of hers who had been arrested. She saw professor Alonso Castellon
had had all his front teeth filed during his detention, and later created the first committee for his liberation.
then went on to teaching and realized that Nicaraguan law completely ignored
torture until 1985, when the Government ratified the Convention Against Torture
(CAT). To this day, however, according to her the definition of torture under
Nicaragua law is incomplete compared to the CAT, according to her.
herself was tortured when arrested in 1979, being considered a political opponent
under Somoza as a lawyer defending Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional rebels. She spent
five days without any news of her being sent to her family, just five months
before the triumph of the Revolución
Popular Sandinista. The military played
recordings of her nine-year-old daughter saying “give me my mom back, you took
her away right in front of me!” while she was in jail. She was also blindfolded
and interrogated naked in front of a series of unknown men, or forced to do series
of 100 squats, or to lie on the floor naked and wet while electrodes were in
contact with the water.
spite of these experiences, Vilma continues her risky work and says fear of
reprisals or death is simply just
not part of her equation. “It’s not enough to use legal instruments to fight
torture; you have to see its behavioural aspects and identify with the victims,”
Vilma’s concern is about the limits of torture’s characterization, in
particular with the forms of torture that do not leave visible traces, but
still affect individuals and families.
and her organization initially thought that torture was no longer systematically
used in the country from 1990-96, with the change of Government, after Daniel
Ortega (elected president from 1985-1990). But from 2007, when Ortega was
re-elected, torture was again institutionalized as a way to punish, bend and
terrify people, and human rights defenders are not allowed into prisons. As crime
has increased in recent years, especially in the countryside, people have been
tortured for being considered supporters or accomplices of politically motivated
armed groups when in fact these peasants were forced to feed guerilleros, Vilma
who has held leading positions in
international or regional human rights NGOs including OMCT, admits
that it is hard to say that thanks
to her work torture has diminished. On
the contrary, there seems to be more torture in Nicaragua today. But at least
people now know they have the right not to be torture.
us our greatest success is that people have now understood the concept, and that
it is a human rights violation,” she says.
by Lori Brumat in Geneva
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