AT THE POINT OF A GUN
In Nicaragua, Torture Is Used to Feed ‘Fake News’
A student under fire, thinking she was about to die, apologized to her mother on video. It went viral. She was arrested, tortured, made to recant. Ortega boosters loved that.
A gun was pointed at her head, one of her comrades was on his knees threatened with execution, and Dania Valeska Alemán Sandoval told her interrogators what they wanted to hear.
Some 72 hours before, the 20-year-old Sandoval had been protesting bravely against the Nicaraguan regime, crouching behind a wall as gunshots punctuated her cries for freedom, and her apologies to her mother—“Perdoname!”—if she were killed. Sandinista militants were attacking the church in the capital, Managua, where she and 200 other unarmed students had sought refuge. The livestream video had gone viral.
Sandoval lived; two of her comrades were killed. But while she made it out alive, she had made herself a target.
Now, in a very different video, Sandoval declared in an over-acted confession that the people there with her had been heavily armed liars and thieves—killers. As Sandoval told the story from a Nicaraguan prison, one activist even posed as a “lady of the night” to rob innocent johns. The charge echoed a claim first made by the socially conservative government of president—and onetime revolutionary—Daniel Ortega.
The recording, spread online by partisans of Ortega’s besieged regime, was a major propaganda coup.
“I say those things because I was threatened,” Sandoval, who is now in hiding, told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview. “Before they took me to record the video I was beaten, I was tortured psychologically, there were a lot of obscene comments and among them there were also comments about how they were going to kill me,” she said.
The “confession” was recorded July 20, she said, by police at El Chipote prison. “They said that they were going to kill me and my family,” she told us. “Later they brought one of my compañeros and put him on his knees and put an AK47 to his head. They told me if I didn’t cooperate and read what they would give me they were going to show the execution of my compañero, and then there would be another and another. There was nothing else I could do but read the script that they had ready for me.”
The coercion did not end there, according to Sandoval. “While they were recording the video, two paramilitaries with balaclavas with AK47 pointed at me, one at my head and one at my chest.” And all the while, out of sight of the camera, Sandoval’s hands were cuffed.
“In our country, nothing is normal,” Sandoval told The Daily Beast. “It is not normal for young people like me to go through everything that has happened and keeps happening to my comrades.”
Amnesty International says it has received other reports of false confessions since mass protests in Nicaragua began earlier this year, but Sandoval’s is the first to be weaponized for international propaganda.
Pilar Sanmartin, crisis researcher for the Americas at the human rights organization, said her claims of abuse also “are consistent with a pattern of torture that we’ve identified in our last research mission.” Indeed, at detention centers such as El Chipote, “acts of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment seem to be increasing,” she said, adding that torture is used “as a way to intimidate, delegitimize and obtain information from people who participate in demonstrations against the government.”
Sandoval was not abused solely by her government. Prior to her prison stay, she was kidnapped by a pro-government paramilitary who stripped her naked, threatened her with rape and ripped out one of her toenails. But then, the distinction between non-state actors and what she calls a “corrupt and murderous” state has been blurred in Nicaragua. And with the release of her coerced confession, she would play an unwitting role in a decidedly 21st century disinformation campaign begun by the government and amplified by its partisans.
In English, the campaign was introduced by a man supposedly named Charles Redvers. According to his online biography, Redvers “has known and lived in Nicaragua at different times over the last three decades.” A Canadian in the university town of León, he saw firsthand the attempted coup d'état against Ortega—which is how supporters of the Nicaraguan president frame the popular unrest that began in April—and, beginning this summer, Redvers began commenting on the politics in his adopted homeland. He would go on to circulate Sandoval’s “confession,” now with English subtitles, and outlets controlled by the ruling Sandinistas would go on to promote his work.
A similar arrangement between the Nicaraguan government and conspiracy-minded websites, each feeding off the claims of the other, was apparent in what the Committee to Protect Journalists termed an “online smear campaign” against Carl David Goette-Luciak, a freelance journalist who has written about Nicaragua for NPR and The Guardian. A lengthy hit piece in English that insinuated he was a “dual-use anthropologist,” stating that his “activities,” such as living among Nicaragua’s restive indigenous population, “fit with a long tradition” of social scientists working for the CIA and U.S. military to pursue regime change. Goette-Luciak, who had been in hiding, was subsequently arrested and deported. Now in El Salvador, he claims Nicaraguan police threatened him with torture at El Chipote over the crime of reporting “false things.”
Another way to say that would be “fake news,” a term embraced by authoritarian regimes around the world. But the most conspicuous fake in this tale is Mr. Redvers, the concerned Canadian expat, who by all indications is not who he claims to be.
Rather, he appears to be the alter-ego of John Perry, a British man who has written for publications including The Guardian, The Nation, the London Review of Books and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, frequently commenting, in his own name, on politics in the Central American nation. According to Perry’s website, he lives in Masaya, Nicaragua, a city just under an hour’s drive from Managua, and 120 kilometers from León. In 2018, our reporting shows he placed two articles as Redvers. OpenDemocracy, a U.K.-based outlet, published the first, “Nicaragua’s failed coup,” which questioned news reports alleging rampant state violence, in particular the claim that Nicaraguan police are “supposedly capable of torture.”
That piece was republished by El 19 and La Voz del Sandinismo, Nicaraguan government outlets that serve as platforms for official statements from the country’s ruling couple. It was shared thousands of times on Facebook with the helpful boost of an “anti-establishment” viral news site.
It was in shopping his work that “Redvers” accidentally revealed his identity. A Microsoft Word document attached to an emailed pitch, obtained by The Daily Beast, shows the file was saved by one “John Perry.” The email was also sent from the “admin” address for Perry’s personal website, through a server located in or around Westminster, England.
When The Daily Beast reached Perry by Skype chat, he declined to answer questions. “I do not wish to make any public comment,” he said. No “Redvers” stories have been published since.
The last one that did appear, containing Sandoval’s purported confession, was not posted anywhere as credible as openDemocracy. It was, however, amplified by the same network of conspiracy and state-sponsored websites. The piece, “A Response to Misinformation on Nicaragua: It Was a Coup, Not a ‘Massacre,’” was published August 15 and the first to cite the English-subtitled confession, uploaded to YouTube by “Columna Paradigital Nicaragua,” which describes the recording as “testimony” on the “overtaking [of the university] by civilian armed groups.” The account has not posted any other content.
“Now that the coup has been defeated,” Redvers writes, introducing the video, “much more evidence is coming to light, such as the testimony by Dania Valeska, one of the student protesters, about the arming of the people who occupied one of the main universities.” Acknowledging her infamous livestream, the piece asserts that Sandoval was “later shown to be play-acting.”
The United Nations human rights office disagrees. In an August 29 report, it noted that the threat to life was very real. “The church was subject to shootings by police and pro-Government armed elements for several hours, which led to the killing of two individuals and injured at least 16,” part of a crackdown the office said violated “international human rights law.” (The Nicaraguan government expelled the U.N.’s human rights team following the report’s publication.)
The second Redvers piece was published by The Grayzone Project, a website edited by an RT contributor, Max Blumenthal, who was this summer invited to conduct an unctuous Q & A with Ortega and who, later, penned the English-language attack on Goette-Luciak that was published days before his arrest.
Blumenthal introduces the Redvers article as having been written by a “longtime resident of Nicaragua who witnessed the coup from the ground,” and includes an editor’s note critiquing Mary Ellsberg, founding director of the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University, for having conducted research, unrelated to Nicaragua, that was funded in part by the U.S. government
Ellsberg, daughter of the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, represents a key vulnerability for Managua, and a recurring target of Redvers. She’s a former supporter turned critic from the left of a Sandinista government that has banned abortion while earning kudos from the International Monetary Fund. (Redvers’ Grayzone bio highlights his previous contribution to openDemocracy, an outlet that has received more than $150,000 from the U.S. government’s National Endowment for Democracy.)
Perry is no stranger to the Grayzone, either. Weeks before publishing “Redvers,” the Grayzone published an open letter, signed by Perry and promoted by RT, critical of The Guardian’s coverage of Nicaragua, arguing one of its contributors, the later-arrested Goette-Luciak, “openly associates with opposition figures.” (Perry has also contributed more than a half-dozen pieces to openDemocracy using his real identity.)
But Perry’s most popular commentary, latching on to fears of U.S.-backed regime change, has come as Charles Redvers. The Grayzone piece featuring Sandoval’s “confession” was reposted, in English and Spanish, on the website Redvolucion.net, launched in May 2018, according to an online registry, by the Red de Jovenes Comunicadores (“Network of Young Communicators”), an arm of the Sandinista Youth. It has published the entire Redvers catalog.
Additionally, the article has been promoted on social media by at least one Nicaraguan embassy and reposted by Tortilla con Sal, a blog distributed by a Nicaraguan government-financed news outlet, which billed it as a response to “misinformation” written by “someone who lives there.” It was also reposted by a leading conspiracy outlet, Global Research, that features prominently in state-sponsored efforts to promote “alternative narratives” related to current events.
Student activists have rejected the accusation that they were armed, and condemned the post-incarceration circulation of the Sandoval tape, calling her a victim of psychological torture.
The unrest in Nicaragua, which began in April 2018, reflects simmering anger against the Ortega government, which critics portray as a family business that squandered billions of dollars in foreign aid on itself. The protests were sparked by two things: a forest fire that burned thousands of acres before the government responded, and the announcement of a plan to trim government pensions while increasing worker contributions. That decision was reversed, but austerity has continued, public spending having since been slashed by a couple of hundred million dollars.
Meanwhile, almost five months of violence in a country of just over 6 million people has left more than 300 dead and seven times as many wounded, the vast majority protesters or perceived opponents of the government.
The body count makes threats of violence all the more credible.
Investigators with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, invited into the country by the Ortega government, interviewed multiple former detainees at El Chipote. According to a report issued in June, they found that “most of the individuals detained in the context of the protests, that began on April 18, were subjected to different forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” some of which amounted to torture. “According to the testimonies, the security agents threatened the detainees with death, as well as assaulting them, their family members, and friends.”
The U.N. human rights report, meanwhile, credits the Ortega government’s “systematic persecution and suppression of dissent” with creating “a climate of widespread terror, frustration, and despair.” The international body said it found no evidence, despite the Sandoval “confession,” that acts of anti-government violence “were coordinated or responded to a pre-existing plan.”
Sandoval has a comment for those who published and shared her coerced testimony.
“The people of Nicaragua and the world have to know that these are tactics that are used by this corrupt and murderous regime to make it seem that everything is normal—that we are the criminals, the terrorists—when what they call terrorism is some young people simply wanting true sovereignty and true peace in our country. Our only crime was going out to defend our elders; it was going out to defend our homeland.”