In search of a little justice

Rape victim Fátima Hernández couldn’t find justice in Nicaragua

Opinion.

Prior to the night of July 20, 2009, Fátima Hernández was just a regular young Managua woman, busy with work and studies. She was not actively involved in the women’s rights movement or politics.

Yet, within a few months, she was unwillingly thrust to the forefront of the fight against what Amnesty International calls “endemic” sexual violence in Nicaragua.

That night in 2009, Hernández decided to go to a bar in Managua with four co-workers from the Ministry of Immigration. The group hung out, chatted, and drank some beer and soda.

Hernández believes her drink was drugged at some point in the evening. What happened next was confirmed by medical and court records: Hernández was raped and beaten by her co-worker, Farinton Reyes Larios, leaving her with injuries that required 43 days of hospitalization.

Yet it’s not what happened to Hernández that has made her a national symbol in the fight against sexual violence, rather what she did about it. After she recovered physically from the rape and assault, she embarked on a heroic struggle to achieve what she calls, “Just a little bit of justice.”

She went on hunger strikes outside courthouse and government offices, publicly denouncing her attacker and relentlessly demanding action from the reluctant police and torpid judicial system. She made so much noise that the authorities were finally forced to arrest Reyes, who was charged and convicted.

Reyes was sentenced to eight years in prison for aggravated rape in July 2010. Hernández’s struggle had been exhausting and dangerous, but it seemed that the court system, despite failing so many other victims of sex crimes, finally got it right, even if their lethargic administration of justice was motivated mostly by public pressure.

But the illusion of justice vanished quickly. In July 2011, the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court reduced Reyes’ sentence by half, setting the stage for his sentence to later be suspended altogether. That decision from the nation’s highest court was doubly devastating to Hernández, rights activists and Nicaragua’s rule of law in general, because it came with a stinging statement that downgraded Reyes’ crime from rape to “an excess in the sexual act” and said that Hernández was “permissive” in the assault.

The court’s ruling was essentially judicial talk for “She asked for it,” with a winked dismissal of Reyes’ behavior as drunken horniness.

On Nov. 22, a couple of days before the International Day to end Violence Against Women, Reyes’ sentence was suspended completely and he was set free. After initially being sentenced to eight years, he served less than 18 months.

Bewildered, Hernández  could say only, “The judiciary made it clear that this is a biased government body that is more interested in protecting the rights of offenders and rapists than of those of the victims.”

Over the past two and a half years, Fátima Hernández has been called a liar and an attention-seeker. She has been accused of acting out of political motivation. She has been attacked in the street and received death threats over the phone. But she has also had support from her family, her community and members of the media. She has also had the strong support from many women’s and human-rights organizations.

And she has even found time to give back to the community. Hernández has set up her own organization to offer legal and psychological support to other abused women and girls. She remains determined that some good can still come of her ordeal.

Having been failed by Nicaragua’s dopey judicial system, Hernández and her lawyers from the Permanent Human Rights Commission (CPDH) will file a petition before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica before Jan. 21, 2012—just 11 days after President Ortega is scheduled to swear-in for this controversial third term as president.

Hernández’s defense lawyers will claim that the Nicaraguan State denied her justice. It may be one of the first battles the new government will face.

Hernández’s experience reaffirmed two disturbing truths about Nicaragua’s justice system: perpetrators of sexual violence often go unpunished, and victims of sex crimes are often judged more harshly than their attackers.

With no chance at fairness or justice in Nicaragua, Hernández will turn to the Inter-American Court in her continued search for “Just a little bit of justice.”

  • PRD

    Like the whole Occupy Movement around the world, money wins and the victims are layed to waste and wonder where the justice went. I applaud the efforts of anyone that stands up to corruption, especially in the justice system, that is the last stop to anarchy when it fails.

    • ernesto chele

      I feel that comparing a politically motivated `movement` – I`d rather call it a protest in alignment with democratic principles- with a human tragedy and struggle for recognition as such is out of place!!

  • Ken

    Please come back with a fact-based follow up. Here is what I see on the side you present: “Hernández believes her drink was drugged at some point in the evening. . . . Hernández was raped and beaten by her co-worker, Farinton Reyes Larios, leaving her with injuries that required 43 days of hospitalization.” The 43 days of hospitalization is strong stuff–obviously something bad happened–but whether a victim “believes” a drink was drugged or not strikes me as irrelevant. A victim can believe in the tooth fairy too, but that doesn’t mean anyone drugged her drink. More, if the drink was drugged, that was presumably to force compliance, yet the charge is that she was beaten and raped (so I guess the drug didn’t work). Then, the coworker thing doesn’t add up. Sure, date rape is super common, but a coworker beating a victim to the point where she is in the hospital 43 days? If true, this is very unusual. The guy would have to be a moron (or ax-murderer) to imagine that he could do this, and frankly I then wonder why she voluntarily went drinking with him in the first place if he had these characteristics.

    I am not saying that I disbelieve the allegation, only that what I read doesn’t give me enough information to believe it. Since I also believe very much in the rights of the accused, I want to see clear evidence of guilt. The bit about the Sandinista court letting him off is fine, but how is the party relevant? The court would be “Sandinista” if it kept him in jail too, wouldn’t it? If politics is pertinent, please tell how and why. If I’m supposed to believe that the Sandinistas always let abusers and rapist off, while presumably some other party controlling the court wouldn’t, sorry, I don’t believe that. I need to see a political link to understand the politics of the alleged injustice.

    Once again, please set me straight. I feel for the woman and would like to believe her. It’s just that the article doesn’t give me enough to believe her. Something happened that put her in the hospital, and I guess the accused was a cause of that, but I’m not buying that she was drugged, or if she was whether that made any difference, and find the alleged brutality unusual for acquaintance rape. Then, how the politics factors in confuses me, if it factors in at all.

    • Luciana Rojas

      With your comments Ken, we can see how hard it is for some men to understand and support women that have suffered violence and sexual violence. It is always women fault according to people like you. It’s Fatima’s fault she went out with co-workers, and it’s her fault because she drink alcohol, the same thing that the court said, she was “una victima cooperante”. Eva the article is great, thanks for reporting about this. It’s great the Nicaragua Dispatch is including sexual violence and human trafficking as an important content for the paper.

      • Ken

        And with your comments, we can see why it is so hard for “some men” (and women) to display the “understanding and support” you apparently expect. I did NOT fault the victim, even though you claim that “people like me” (thanks for the stereotype) “always” do. However, fault or complicity was an issue, since the victim claims that her drink was drugged. Presumably, this claim is meant to excuse some apparent complicity on her part, and thus indicates her awareness of some less-than-responsible behavior. It is too bad that the police failed to investigate this claim, but the defense itself brought up the apparent culpability of the victim. It doesn’t require some misunderstanding guy to bring it up when the victim herself does.

        I am also well aware of the rampant sexual exploitation of women in Nicaragua, as for example noted in the Amnesty International report posted later by the author, and am unequivocally opposed to it. (BTW, there is some sexual exploitation of boys too, and gay prostitution has become part of the tourism industry.) However, I reject the assumption of “some women” that they have moral authority to impute motives to me that I must then defend myself against, so I’ll pass on my own defense.

        My concern was simply that the article neglected to include facts of the sort that would persuade a reader unfamiliar with the case to conclude that the final court decision was unjust, much less that the injustice was politically motivated. I therefore urged the writer to add those facts. She graciously did, as you can see, but I’m afraid that the way I read her reply, the facts of guilt amount to assuming that lower court rulings were correct but the higher court ruling isn’t. For all I know she is right about this, and I don’t suppose anyone needs to go into the various details of the case, but actually the overall patterns of sexual exploitation (as reported by Amnesty International etc.) have no bearing on this or any given case. The questions here are whether the high court ruled incorrectly in this case, and whether that ruling was politically motivated. These are whopper assertions that need to be defended on the basis of the facts of the case, and I didn’t read the article as having done this.

        My more general concern is that, when an anecdote is used to illustrate a broader problem, the anecdote should be strong and unequivocal. There are plenty of cases of sexual exploitation in Nicaragua that are. As presented, this case isn’t. There are too many gray areas. The risk of using it as the illustrative anecdote is that in undermines the larger objective of stimulating widespread support for counteracting a real problem. Forget me, you actually want examples that will get your “some men” on your side. Give them an unambiguous case, and you will get them. A case with ambiguities, though, may leave the concerned preaching to the choir.

        BTW, Kristoff’s articles in the NY Times are an excellent example of how to choose anecdotes. He takes pains to avoid any example that can be read as other than flat-out wrong. Rogers’ pieces have done similarly. None of his examples have shades of gray. This is what you want.

    • ernesto chele

      Are you replacing Ms. Hernadez speculations about what happened that night with your speculations? Tragically she was there!!

  • Eva Carroll

    Hi Ken. Thanks for your response and please accept my apologies for not replying earlier.

    To respond to your queries, the Supreme Court didn’t deny that Reyes attacked Fatima, but belittled the severity of the attack by referring to it as an excess in the sexual act after a lower court had convicted him of aggravated rape and sentenced him to eight years. So no part of the justice system has denied his guilt. He remains convicted of the crime and has been released on a suspended sentence, and will be returned to prison if he breaches the conditions attached to it.

    The Supreme Court is an FSLN controlled institution, and the implication here is that there is a reluctance in this government to tackle and take seriously sexual violence in Nicaragua. For further reading on this, please see Amnesty International’s ongoing campaign calling on the government to end impunity for those who commit sexual crimes. http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/report/nicaragua-must-put-end-rape-and-sexual-abuse-girls-2010-11-25

    You ask why she went drinking with a person of his character. Fatima went out with a wider group of colleagues that evening, including Reyes. I assume that he had not displayed his tendencies towards sexual violence in the workplace prior to that evening. If he had, I should think that he would not have been invited on the work evening out.

    Turning to the fact that Fatima believes that her drink was drugged. After the assault, she asked the police officer to whom she reported the attack to conduct a blood test to ascertain whether she had been drugged, but was denied the test. If the police had carried out the correct procedures for rape allegations, I might have been able to write for a fact that her drink had been drugged. I’m sure that rapists who drug their victims are no less aggressive once the drug has taken effect and if you search court records of any country, you will discover cases of survivors of rape and sexual assault who have also been beaten while in a drugged state. There is no forensic evidence that she was drugged, which is why I wrote ‘believes’.

    Finally, you say that you ‘feel for the woman and would like to believe her’. May I reiterate that the courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, believed Fatima’s allegations and upheld Reyes’ conviction accordingly. Fatima’s complaint is that the highest court in the country downplayed the seriousness of it, and reduced and then suspended his sentence, sending out a worrying message that rape and assault are not being taken as seriously as they should be at the highest level.

    I hope that this clarifies the story for you.

    Eva Carroll.

    • Ken

      Thanks, Eva, and I really appreciate your tone. I have mentioned my lingering reservations in a reply to another poster, so won’t repeat them here, but do want to clarify what I meant by “believe.” I did not mean to imply that I doubted that Fatima was victimized, which as you say even the Supreme Court affirmed, but to question her belief that the court downplayed the seriousness (or in this case the one-sidedness) of it. As I understand it, the issue is how much time the guy should spend in jail, since he already spent some time there.

      Also, a couple tidbits (which if pursued probably should be off the boards):

      My understanding is that the Supreme Court was packed by Ortega and Aleman together. Ortega now has the upper hand in the pact, and seems to control the court, but isn’t this because non-FSLN justices are going along? It just seems to me that the blame-the-FSLN argument goes a bit too far when others are falling in line.

      Second, and here I’m genuinely curious, is it routine police procedure in Nicaragua or anywhere to test for say a drugged drink simply because a rape victim asks for the test? My experience in the US is that the police actually do squat. They can’t be bothered to do something even as simple (at least on TV) as collect fingerprints. My understanding from lawyers and elsewhere is that this is routine police procedure, and anyone who actually wants to collect evidence has to pay for that privately. Sure, the cops prioritize some cases, but as a rule it’s up to the victims to collect the evidence themselves. Is it different for rape victims? And in Nicaragua?

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  • Rev Deborah

    Ken I dont know where you live but I live in Puerto Cabezas and the sexual assault of women here is a constant occurrence. It is so normal nobody reacts anymore. I am way past expecting women to prove it. And I stand with women in soldarity because too many people want to believe but cant. I will admit that it is hard to get your head around why a guy would do this to a co worker or a child…..and we can waste alot of time wondering about that or we accept that this is an epidemic in Nicaragua and it is time for MEN to stand with WOMEN in solidarity and stop asking for more proof

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