MANAGUA, Nicaragua — President Daniel Ortega signed a new constitution into law Friday and immediately suspended many of its civil rights guarantees under a nationwide state of emergency.
In a televised speech, Ortega said the emergency, in force since 1982 and technically lifted as the new charter took effect, was being reimposed to help defend leftist-ruled Nicaragua against a U.S.-backed insurgency.
"This constitution was born amid aggression against us," Ortega said. "The North American government threatened us with an invasion. So can we lift the state of emergency?"
Emergency Must Remain
"No!" shouted several thousand people who had gathered in Managua's Plaza de la Revolucion for the constitutional ceremony.
"Then we must maintain the emergency," Ortega said, "not because we want to, but to preserve our security. We will do so within the law, within the constitution we have today."
A decree published after Ortega spoke suspended for one year the same rights that have been suspended since the state of emergency was toughened in October, 1985.
This includes the right to be taken before judicial authorities within 24 hours of being arrested, the right to a speedy and public trial, freedom of movement within the country, freedom to enter and leave the country, the right to privacy, freedom from search without warrant, freedom of expression, the right of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, the right to strike and freedom to publish without prior censorship.
Those and other guarantees had been recognized in a Bill of Rights after Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front deposed President Anastasio Somoza in a 1979 armed uprising and abolished the the constitution of 1974.
Ortega rejected a demand by four opposition parties to limit the emergency to rural areas touched directly by fighting between his Sandinista army and the U.S.-backed contras .
"The aggression we have been suffering since 1981 affects the whole country," he said. "We can speak of war zones where there is combat, but all Nicaragua is a war zone. How many times has the CIA tried to create an internal front in our cities? How many times have the mercenaries tried to sabotage our refineries?"
The National Assembly, controlled by the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front, has 45 days to ratify the emergency. Opposition lawmakers, who hold 35 of the 96 seats and represent six parties from the Communist left to the moderate right, said they would try to soften it.
"The new constitution has been born crippled and put away in a wheelchair," said Mauricio Diaz, president of the left-leaning Popular Social Christian Party. "The Sandinistas are using the war as a pretext to keep the country under tight control."
Fourteen opposition assemblymen refused to ratify the new charter and boycotted Friday's ceremony.
Nevertheless, Ortega hailed the constitution as a landmark of legitimacy for the Sandinistas, who won 1984 national elections that the contras and some internal opposition leaders denounced as fraudulent.
With Peruvian President Alan Garcia seated on the podium and lawmakers from 10 other nations in attendance, the Nicaraguan leader declared: "We are institutionalizing our revolution by promulgating the first constitution debated by the people, edited by the people and defended by the people in the history of Nicaragua."
He called it a charter with "a Latin American spirit, a Third World spirit, anti-imperialist, democratic and pacifist."
The document commits Nicaragua to a multi-party political system, international nonalignment and a mix of state and private property, with all banking and foreign trade under state control.
It also guarantees equal rights for men and women, religious freedom, paid leaves of absence during pregnancy, the right to a job and preservation of minority Indian cultures. It prohibits torture and capital punishment.
However, critics of the Sandinistas said the government could enforce these guarantees in any way it chooses because of the strong presidential powers outlined in the charter and the ruling party's control of the army.
A minority in the Assembly lost a battle last year to bar Sandinista party doctrine from the army ranks and to bar the president from seeking reelection after a six-year term.
The president can decree legislation when the Assembly is not in session. He has unchecked power to name Cabinet officials and Supreme Court justices and can declare war without the Assembly's approval.
Garcia, the first democratically elected head of state to visit Nicaragua in more than a year, hailed the new constitution in a speech at the ceremony.
"This constitution tells democrats of the world that there need not be revolution without liberty, without participation."
But in a warning to the Sandinistas, he added: "You have to show the world now that it is possible to construct socialism with the freedoms and liberties that mankind have achieved through history."