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map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

Nicaragua is a constitutional democracy with executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral branches of government. In 1995, the executive and legislative branches negotiated a reform of the 1987 Sandinista constitution which gave impressive new powers and independence to the legislature--the National Assembly--including permitting the Assembly to override a presidential veto with a simple majority vote and eliminating the president's ability to pocket veto a bill. Both the president and the members of the unicameral National Assembly are elected to concurrent 5-year terms. The National Assembly consists of 90 deputies elected from party lists drawn at the department and national level, plus the defeated presidential candidates who obtained a minimal quotient of votes. In the 1996 elections, the Liberal Alliance won a plurality of 42 seats, the FSLN won 36 seats, and nine other political parties and alliances won the remaining 15 seats.

Led by a council of seven magistrates, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) is the co-equal branch of government responsible for organizing and conducting elections, plebiscites, and referendums. The magistrates and their alternates are elected to 5-year terms by the National Assembly. Constitutional changes in 2000 expanded the number of CSE magistrates from five to seven and gave the PLC and the FSLN a freer hand to name party activists to the Council, prompting allegations of an effort by both parties to over-politicize electoral institutions and processes.

Freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the Nicaraguan constitution and vigorously exercised by its people. Diverse viewpoints are freely and openly discussed in the media and in academia. There is no state censorship in Nicaragua. Other constitutional freedoms include peaceful assembly and association, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement within the country, as well as foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government also permits domestic and international human rights monitors to operate freely in Nicaragua. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on birth, nationality, political belief, race, gender, language, religion, opinion, national origin, economic or social condition. All public and private sector workers, except the military and the police, are entitled to form and join unions of their own choosing, and they exercise this right extensively. Nearly half of Nicaragua's work force, including agricultural workers, is unionized. Workers have the right to strike. Collective bargaining is becoming more common in the private sector.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Courts & Judgments

The Nicaraguan judicial system comprises both civil and military courts. The 16-member Supreme Court is the system's highest court, and in addition to administering the judicial system, also is responsible for nominating all appellate and lower court judges. The Court is divided into specialized chambers on administrative, criminal, constitutional, and civil matters. Under the Law of the Child and Family, which took effect in 1998, the attorney general's office rather than the police investigates crimes committed by and against juveniles. The 1994 military code requires the civilian court system to try members of the military charged with common crimes. In July 2000, the Government opened new property tribunals to handle cases concerning seized properties.

The Supreme Court supervises the functioning of the still largely ineffective and overburdened judicial system. As part of the 1995 constitutional reforms, the independence of the Supreme Court was strengthened by increasing the number of magistrates from 9 to 12. Supreme Court justices are elected to 7-year terms by the National Assembly.

The Supreme Court commission supervising the revision of the country's outdated criminal codes and procedures continued its work, in coordination with the National Assembly's judicial commission. Reform of these codes is intended to reduce judicial delays and resulting excessive pretrial detention. In 2000, the Assembly began the process to approve a new draft Criminal Code; however, the Assembly still must approve each chapter of the draft Criminal Code before it can go into effect. In November the National Assembly approved a Criminal Procedures Code, which is not expected to enter into effect until November 2002. In 1999 the National Assembly approved a reform of the Public Ministry's office that streamlined the judicial process by separating the defense and the prosecution functions. Specifically, the reform transferred powers from the National Attorney General to a newly created State Defense Attorney's Office, which is charged with defending the Government against legal action taken by private or other public actors.

Despite improvements to the criminal law system, the country still lacks an effective civil law system. As a result, cases more properly handled in a civil proceeding often are transmuted into criminal proceedings. One party then effectively is blackmailed, being jailed due to action by the party wielding greater influence with the judge. In addition, this heavy civil-based criminal caseload claims attention from an overburdened public prosecutor's office and diverts resources that otherwise could be directed toward genuine criminal matters.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Human Rights

The Nicaraguan Government generally respected many of its citizens' human rights in 2001; however, serious problems remained in some areas. Members of the security forces committed 15 reported extrajudicial killings at year's end. Police continued to beat and otherwise abuse detainees. There were allegations of torture by the authorities. Prison and police holding cell conditions remain harsh, although overcrowding improved somewhat. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained citizens; however, the number of such reports decreased during the year. The Government effectively punished some of those who committed abuses; however, a degree of impunity persisted. Lengthy pretrial detention and long delays in trials remain problems; however, the judiciary has made efforts to reduce the large case backlog. The judiciary is subject at times to political influence and corruption. The Supreme Court continued its structural reform program for the judicial system. The weakness of the judiciary continued to hamper prosecution of human rights abusers in some cases. A new Journalist Guild Law raised concerns regarding freedom of the press. The Human Rights Ombudsman continued to make publicized recommendations during the year that openly challenged the policies of the Aleman administration; the Ombudsman publicly attributed significant budget reductions for his office to these criticisms. Violence against women, including domestic abuse and rape, remained a problem. Discrimination against women is an ingrained problem. Violence against children is a problem and child prostitution continued. Discrimination against indigenous people also occurred. Child labor remained a problem. Concern over violation of labor rights in free trade zones continued. There were reports of trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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