San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gov’t Drops Criminal Investigation of NGOs

State prosecutors last week closed their controversial criminal probe of 17 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) after they failed to find enough evidence to press charges after three months of investigation, according to prosecutor’s office spokesperson Tania García.

The case, which critics have called a “witch hunt” against dissidents, is now being passed to the Ministry of Governance, which will investigate whether the NGOs could face administrative sanctions.

“The state prosecutor’s office found no crimes,” said García.

The NGOs, among them the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM), Oxfam Great Britain and the Center for Communications Research (CINCO), headed by renowned journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, were being investigated for suspicion of money laundering.

MAM director Sofia Montenegro said though the criminal investigation has been dropped, the government will continue to investigate the groups for suspected administrative irregularities for which they could face possible fines.

“Obviously they want to constantly have an instrument of pressure,” said Montenegro. “The whole process is politically motivated.”

Montenegro, a former Sandinista, claims MAM was being persecuted for having led opposition protests in 2008.

Prosecutors are in the process of returning to the NGOs the documents that were requested – or seized – as part of the investigation, García said.

The Ortega government drew fire from NGOs, human rights groups, business chambers and foreign governments for launching its controversial investigation last October. The Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders calledthe investigation a “witch hunt” against dissidents.

Oxfam of Great Britain released a statement this week lamenting that the 45-year-old group’s image in Nicaragua had been damaged by the investigation.

“We’ve said since the beginning that Oxfam GB is a serious organization that respects Nicaraguan laws. We’re transparent and we always have been available to give account to the appropriate authorities that request it,” said Oxfam spokesman Simon Ticehurst.

Ticehurst said the investigation triggered “great instability” in Nicaragua’s NGO sector and has “seriously affected the image of Oxfam GB.”

He said “false accusations” made by government-run media have threatened the group’s image, and requested that authorities give the organization documentation that says the probe has been closed.

Montenegro said she suspects the Ortega government dropped the investigation after European governments – many which had been implicated because funds that were being investigated had originated from their coffers – announced aid cuts late last year amid concerns over deteriorating political freedoms in Nicaragua.

Faced with more than $100 million in foreign aid cuts, the Ortega government recently announced it would tighten its 2009 budget, including $20 million in cuts for health and education (see separate story).

–Blake Schmidt


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