Arbitrary arrests, abuse the new norm in Nicaragua

In this July 27, 2018 photo, a university student who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from the government shows his scars, the pro

In this July 27, 2018 photo, a university student who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from the government shows his scars, the pro

In this Saturday, July 28, 2018 photo, Jairo Bonilla, leader of the April 19 student movement, wears a T-shirt with text that reads in Spanish "We are

In this Saturday, July 28, 2018 photo, Jairo Bonilla, leader of the April 19 student movement, wears a T-shirt with text that reads in Spanish "We are

In this July 24, 2018 photo, a university student who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from the government show his tattoo of a Sac

In this July 24, 2018 photo, a university student who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from the government show his tattoo of a Sac

In this July 24, 2018 photo, flyers of missing persons cover a wall inside the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, in Managua, Nicaragua. The flyers r

In this July 24, 2018 photo, flyers of missing persons cover a wall inside the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, in Managua, Nicaragua. The flyers r

In this July 25, 2018 photo, Maria Jose Malespin shows a photograph of her missing son Lester Lenin Mayorga Malespin, who was detained at a police che

In this July 25, 2018 photo, Maria Jose Malespin shows a photograph of her missing son Lester Lenin Mayorga Malespin, who was detained at a police che

FILE - In this July 14, 2018 file photo, students who had taken refuge at the Jesus of Divine Mercy church amid a barrage of armed attacks, arrive on

FILE - In this July 14, 2018 file photo, students who had taken refuge at the Jesus of Divine Mercy church amid a barrage of armed attacks, arrive on

FILE- In this June 30, 2018 file photo, hundreds of thousands participate in a demonstration called the "March of the Flowers" remembering the childre

FILE- In this June 30, 2018 file photo, hundreds of thousands participate in a demonstration called the "March of the Flowers" remembering the childre

In this July 24, 2018 photo, Vilma Nunez, president of Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights talks on a phone, at her office in Managua, Nicaragua. "Righ

In this July 24, 2018 photo, Vilma Nunez, president of Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights talks on a phone, at her office in Managua, Nicaragua. "Righ

In this July 23, 2018 photo, plywood with graffiti depicting the last names of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice President Rosa

In this July 23, 2018 photo, plywood with graffiti depicting the last names of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice President Rosa

FILE- In this July 18, 2018 file photo, heavily armed pro-government militia occupy the Monimbo neighborhood of Masaya, Nicaragua. President Daniel Or

FILE- In this July 18, 2018 file photo, heavily armed pro-government militia occupy the Monimbo neighborhood of Masaya, Nicaragua. President Daniel Or

In this July 25, 2018 photo, a group of women visit the main entrance of El Chipote detention center in Managua, Nicaragua. Two-dozen hardcore Sandini

In this July 25, 2018 photo, a group of women visit the main entrance of El Chipote detention center in Managua, Nicaragua. Two-dozen hardcore Sandini

FILe - In this May 26, 2018 file photo, the Spanish word for "Murderer" covers a mural of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, as part of anti-governm

FILe - In this May 26, 2018 file photo, the Spanish word for "Murderer" covers a mural of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, as part of anti-governm

In this July 25, 2018 photo, a graffiti that that reads in Spanish "We demand justice" is written on a wall outside El Chipote detention center in Man

In this July 25, 2018 photo, a graffiti that that reads in Spanish "We demand justice" is written on a wall outside El Chipote detention center in Man

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — The 21-year-old agricultural economics student, nearly two months pregnant, had hoped to escape Nicaragua with her boyfriend, but a police officer on a motorcycle blocked their path as they were getting into taxis with other students to go to a safe house.

Five police trucks loaded with masked and armed men dressed in civilian garb surrounded them. Uniformed officers began to search the students' backpacks. One pulled out a blue-and-white Nicaraguan flag.

"These are the terrorists who killed our fellow police," the officer shouted, using President Daniel Ortega's term for those who have protested against his government since mid-April.

The young couple and their friends joined the ranks of more than 2,000 people arrested in Nicaragua in nearly four months of unrest and official crackdown. At least 400 people are believed to still be held in jails, prisons and police stations, and some consider them political prisoners, the non-governmental Nicaraguan Human Rights Center says.

The others were held for days or weeks incommunicado, brutally interrogated to give up names and threatened with terrorism charges before being released without explanation as Ortega's government seeks to extinguish the resistance.

"They crushed my fingers, and hit me in the ribs and the stomach," the pregnant student said. "When I was on the ground, they kicked me."

The Associated Press separately interviewed four of those arrested and released, all of whom are in hiding. They agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

"Right now, without exaggerating, Nicaragua is a prison," said Vilma Nunez, the rights center's president and a former supreme court vice president under Ortega's first Sandinista government in 1979. She called Ortega's systematic search for those involved in the protests a "human hunt."

Last week the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said its monitoring team in Nicaragua found that detainees were abused, not informed of their rights or any charges, and taken into custody without warrants. Their families were not told where they were held, it added.

National police did not respond to a request for comment.

Ortega for weeks denied that paramilitary squads and Sandinista youth groups that have clashed with or attacked protesters were working with the police. But when asked in a recent TV interview how demonstrators picked up by masked paramilitaries ended up in jails, he said: "We have volunteer police who cooperate with the police."

He has accused protesters and opponents of trying to stage a coup.

The unrest began as protests to social security cuts. After a deadly crackdown, students became the vanguard of a broader push demanding Ortega step down.

The young woman from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua was among nearly 200 students who dug in at the Managua campus, only to be driven out in mid-July by paramilitaries under heavy gunfire that killed two people.

A short time later, she and others were taken to a police processing center and lined up with their hands behind their necks.

"I told (one) I was pregnant," she said. "'Ah,' he says, 'great. We've got a pregnant one.'"

"One of the paramilitaries came and punched me in the stomach," she said. "'Now we're going to get it out of you,' he said. 'And you're going to eat it alive.'"

The men and women were separated and interrogated individually. The men were stripped naked.

A 20-year-old business administration student from the national university said he was punched in the stomach and kicked in the testicles. A police officer ripped out his eyebrow piercing, and a cigarette was put out on a tattoo on his shoulder.

"They said they were going to rape us. They said they were going to rape the girls," he said.

Police and masked civilians asked the same questions in the interrogations: Who were the student leaders? What political party was financing their movement? How much were they being paid? What weapons did they have?

A 24-year-old marketing major at the national university said a female police officer threatened her with a knife and slapped her.

A 23-year-old woman who recently graduated from another university said she was hit with a rifle butt.

Her boyfriend, whom they suspected of being a leader, suffered worse. "They put a cigarette on his testicle," she said.

The pregnant student was taken to a room and made to stand with her hands spread out on a table. The interrogators began hitting her in the stomach once more, she said, and a female officer cut off half her toenail.

When she again told them she was pregnant, they told her: "The pain is what we feel fighting for the country. You all just want to see the country destroyed. You want to see our commander (Ortega) go."

Midway through her five-day incarceration she started to bleed. She was interrogated and beaten again.

When the students were finally released they were warned to stay out of sight or they would be charged with terrorism.

The next day she went to a hospital, where a doctor told her there was nothing they could do.

"They told me to prepare myself for the news," she said. "I lost my baby."