Nicaraguan parliament approves controversial hate crimes law

FILE PHOTO: Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo greet supporters during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the taking of the national palace by Sandinistas guerrilla in 1978, in Managua, Nicaragua August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

(Reuters) - Nicaragua’s parliament voted on Tuesday to amend the Central American country’s constitution to allow life sentences for hate crimes despite criticism from human rights organizations who contend it will be used to target political opponents.

Legislators loyal to President Daniel Ortega pushed through the amendment with 70 votes in favor and 16 against. The maximum sentence has been 30 years for hate crimes.

The change still needs to be approved in a second legislative period, with the next starting on Jan. 10.

“It’s a reform with political interests to persecute opponents,” said Gonzalo Carrion, a lawyer for the Nicaraguan human rights collective Never+.

Wilfredo Navarro, a lawmaker with Ortega’s ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front, said the revision would allow life imprisonment for those who commit “serious crimes when they occur in hateful, cruel, degrading, humiliating and inhuman circumstances” and prompt a national outrage.

Rosario Murillo, Nicaraguan vice president and wife of Ortega, announced weeks ago that the government planned to propose an amendment to Article 37 after a series of rapes and femicides caused a national outcry.

Later, she said the article would also cover crimes motivated by hate against the government.

Opposition protests against Ortega erupted in 2018, leading to the deaths of more than 300 people, most at the hands of the police and armed civilians loyal to the government, human rights organizations said.

Over the past three weeks, Nicaragua’s parliament also passed two separate laws intended to prevent external funding for political organizations as well as to regulate publications in the media and on social networks.

Reporting by Ismael Lopez; Writing by Stefanie Eschenbacher