IN THE SITUATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN PANAMA
During its forty-seventh session, held in
Washington D.C., the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decided
to include in its Annual Report to the General Assembly, a summary of
the developments in the situation of human rights in Panama during 1978.
This first report published by the
Commission on the Situation of Human Rights in Panama (OEA/Ser.L/II.44,
doc. 38, rev. 1, June 22, 1978), published on December 8, 1978, went
only as far as June 1 of that year.
Based largely on data obtained during an in loco
observation, the report presented that following conclusions and
The Commission believes that the present
report contains the most important information with regard to the
situation of human rights in Panama from the current Government’s
taking power until the first of June of 1978, and that this information
permits the following comment with respect to the observance of these
The Commission believes, moreover, that it
is useful to underline certain special aspects, in order to facilitate
an understanding of what has occurred in Panama, as well as the reasons
for the recommendations that are made in this report.
The events examined correspond to a period
of nine years; however, particular emphasis is given to the events and
the impressions from the on-site observation. During these nine years,
two periods should be distinguished, one which begins in 1968, the year
of the coup d’état from which the current Government emerged and
which ends en 1972, when the current Constitution was approved, and a
second which commences with the new Constitution and continues until
June 1, 1978, the date in this report.
In the first period (1968-1977), the regime
adopted a political-juridical structure set forth in the Constitution of
1972. With respect to human rights situation, there was evident
improvement, although the following types of violations could be noted:
1) the expatriation of Panamanian citizens for political reasons, in
clear violation of the Constitutional provisions; 2) restrictions on the
freedom of assembly, expression and association, especially when of a
political nature; and 3) interference in the judicial process by
government officials. There has not been effective protection of the
above rights because of important factors which seriously affect the
independence of the judiciary, with resultant, negative fall out on the
freedoms and guarantees related to the due process of law.
Information available to the Commission,
however, does not go so far as to present a picture of a systematic
violation of fundamental rights. Rather, such information indicates that
there has been progress as regards respect for traditional democratic
freedoms, although in the opinion of one group interviewed by the
Special Commission, such progress is temporary. Other interviewees
emphasized that continued progress is uncertain because of the lack of
an institutionalized base to guarantee it.
The Government of Panama, aware of this
problem, informed the Special Commission that it was willing to receive
suggestions from Panamanians and from the IACHR to improve the
observance of human rights. This attitude was expressed during the visit
of the Special Commission, for example, in the case of the repeal of
Decrees 341 and 342, which were the object of conversations between the
Special Commission and Panamanian authorities, and later, the repeal of
Likewise, the improvement of the situation
referred to previously in these conclusions should be considered in the
context of three particularly relevant conditions: the juridical and
political preeminence of the Head of Government, the absence of
political control by the representative body, because it does not have
the necessary powers for that purpose, and the existence of factors that
interfere with the structural and operative independence of the
Judiciary. These three conditions are closely related to the political
as well as to the constitutional reality, but, they constitute
situations which encumber Panamanian life and tend to promote a lack of
respect for human rights. These realities can affect—or do affect,
according to important groups of Panamanians—the implementation of the
new system of political representation and popular participation created
by the regime and set forth in the Constitution of 1972, that is to say,
the system of representation by districts (corregimientos). In the final
analysis, the constitutional powers of the Head of State, which are very
broad give the Head of State great power without any significant
counterbalances, which by its very nature not only opens the door to an
abuse of power, but also permits in practice, the annulment, limitation
and distortion of the effective exercise of political representation and
popular participation, not to mention, of course, the observance of
other rights and guarantees. In this regard, it is important to note
that many persons critical of the system of representation by corregimientos
also expressed doubts about the representative character of the old
The following recommendations are intended
to assist the Government of Panama, and in general, the people of
Panama, in their desire to improve the situation of human rights.
To take all necessary measures to insure the independence of the
Judiciary and to instruct all officials of the Executive branch to
comply with all judicial orders.
To adopt the necessary measures for the protection of persons
held in custody—whether for interrogation, pre trial, detention,
incarceration following conviction and sentencing or for any other
purpose—from physical abuse or the threat thereof by officials.
Particular efforts should be made to prevent the sexual abuse of women
held in custody.
To strictly apply the national and international rules
prohibiting forced labor of persons in custody who have not been
convicted and sentenced by the appropriate judicial authority.
To provide persons accused of criminal offenses with adequate
means to prepare and present their defense. Some steps that might be
taken are the following: (a) provision of legal assistance to all
accused persons; (b) provision of ample opportunities for accused
persons to consult regularly with counsel, to participate in the
preparation of their defense and to be informed expeditiously of all
steps taken in connection with the processing of their case; (c) full
implementation of the Panamanian law governing visitation of centers of
detention by judges, and (d) elimination of existing night-court
procedures which allow persons to be sentenced to prison terms without
any real opportunity to prepare their defense.
To implement the international norms, reflected in the Panamanian
Constitution which, for example, precludes the expatriation of
Panamanian citizens except as an option available to persons who have
been tried or convicted in judicial proceedings satisfying all of the
requirement of the due process of law.
To take steps to allow judicial review of cases involving persons
convicted by administrative action under Decree Law 342.
To guarantee individuals the right to organize and assemble for
peaceful political purposes and to disseminate their views among the
To apply generally recognized norms for the classification and
separation of persons in custody.
To accelerate efforts to relieve the existing congestion in
detention centers and prisons and to assure the availability of adequate
medical services for all persons held in custody, taking into account
the particular needs of each place. In light of the work activities
required of prisoners on the Island of Coiba, improved medical
facilities are particularly required there.
In accordance with the Commission’s
practice the report, including the conclusions and recommendations were
sent to the Government of Panama; the Commission requested the
Government to formulate its observations or comments. In a note dated
October 27, 1978 the Government replied in the following terms,
detailing the legislative changes that had been made and specifying the
measures taken to improve the observance of human rights:
Mr. Edmundo Vargas Carreño
Executive Secretary of the
Inter-American Commission of
Organization of American States
Dear Mr. Vargas:
At the instructions of the Minister of
Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Panama, Dr. Carlos Ozore T., I have
the honor to convey to you observations and comments on the report on
the situation of human rights in Panama, approved by the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights at its Fortieth Session.
First of all, we are pleased to note that
mention is made in the introduction of the report of the fact that the
Commission’s on-site observation was based on an express invitation by
the Head of the Panamanian Government, General Omar Torrijos Herrera,
dated September 13, 1977 as well as of the statement to facilitate by
all means the performance of its mission were extended to the IACHR,
which enabled it for the first time in its history to examine the
functioning of a country’s criminal justice system, and that this was
due to the full cooperation of the Government of Panama.
We are also pleased to observe that the
comments made under the heading “Legal Framework,” although rather
condensed, reflect quite objectively that the constitutional and legal
provisions in effect in Panama are clearly aimed at guaranteeing respect
for an observance of human rights.
According to the chapter on conclusions,
the report intends to reflect the status of rights in Panama up to June
1, 1978. Without analyzing at this time whether that purpose is fully
accomplished, and refraining from examining specific aspects of the
report, we believe that to end it at that date does not present an
adequate reflection of the Panamanian situation. From June until the
present date, basic changes have occurred which, in our opinion, should
be included in the report. These changes are of such importance that
they cannot be left aside. The report, if published in its present
version, would reflect some situations that no longer exist.
As one example, we mention the fact that
last October 25 the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives
approved an Act amending the Constitution of Panama. This Act amends
Articles 41, 129, 140, 141, 143, 145, 146, 147, 148, 149, 150, 151, 152,
153, 154, 157, 163, 164, 172, 173, 180, 181, 235, 237, and added
Articles 153A and 153B.
Next we should like to comment on the
content of the constitutional amendments and other significant aspects,
which in our opinion, should be taken into account for inclusion in the
The amendments to the Constitution include
matters of major importance, such as the following:
legislative function shall be exercised by the Plenum of the National
Assembly of Municipal Representatives and the National Legislative
Council. In accordance with Article 146, as amended, the National
Legislative Council shall be set up in the following manner.
President of the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives who
shall preside. In his absence, the Vice President shall replace him;
(4) Municipal Representatives from each Province and one (1) from the
Region of San Blas and the Municipality of Puerto Obaldía for a term of
two (2) years. They shall be chosen by a majority vote of
Representatives of each province in an election among and by the
Representatives of the municipalities of the respective province at a
meeting to be convoked and chaired by the Vice President of the National
Assembly of Municipal Representatives of the Province every two (2)
years, within ten (10) days following October 11. Each of these members
shall have an alternate representative who shall be a municipal
representative and who shall be elected in the same manner.
(2) provincial representatives and one (1) from each political region or
division created by law in the indigenous areas and their respective
alternate representatives, elected by direct popular ballot for a term
of six (6) years. The provisions of the Constitution contained in
Articles 133 and 134 shall be applicable to the provincial
representatives, except that residence shall refer to the province;
Articles 135 and 136, and, in the latter case, the restriction in the
first paragraph is extended to the state; Article 137, except where
prior authorization must be given by the National Legislative Council;
and Article 139.
The provincial representatives referred to
in paragraph 3 shall be elected in 1980 with the participation of the
of 1984, the President and Vice President of the Republic are to be
the administrative functions of the National Assembly of Municipal
Representatives are the following:
“To approve or reject the appointments of
the Justices of the Supreme Court and their alternates, the Attorney
General, the Comptroller General and the Assistant Comptroller General
of the Republic, the Prosecutor and his alternate.”
of October 11, 1977, Article 277 of the Constitution ceased to be in
The members of the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights are surely not unaware of the impact of these
amendments, and they will be able to make an exhaustive analysis of that
impact on the basis of the text of the Reform Act, a copy of which is
On October 5, 1978, the National
Legislative Council approved Law 81 of October 5, 1978, governing
political parties and establishing January, 1979 as the time for them to
receive legal standing through the corresponding registration process.
The text of Law 81 of 1978 is attached.
Through Law 67 of September 19, 1978,
journalism is given professional standing. A copy of this Law is also
Apart from the aforementioned aspects, we
also wish to bring to the attention of the Commission the fact that the
same day the United States Senate approved the resolution ratifying the
Canal Treaty, the Head of the Panamanian Government announced that there
would be no limitations or conditions for the return of exiles to the
country. This has been honored.
of Common Criminals
The Panamanian Government’s respect for
freedom is also demonstrated in specific actions such as Decree Nº 3 of
October 10, 1978, whereby a pardon was decreed in favor of 215 common
prisoners who deserved a pardon for good conduct. A copy of this decree
is also attached.
It is not our intention to comment on each
of the individual cases referred to in the report. The Commission’s
requests for information have been amply and promptly met. We shall
continue to respond in this manner.
Finally, we wish to state to the members of
the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the Panamanian
Government continues to recognize that body’s role, which is not only
to investigate violations of human rights, but also to disclaim, through
its reports, unfounded charges made against countries such as ours that
respect those rights.
Please accept the assurances of my highest
M Manuel Castulovich
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Because of the cooperation provided by the
Government of Panama in providing documentation and adopting measures
that contributed to the observance of human rights in a number of areas,
the Commission decided, as indicated in the following resolution, to
publish its report, but not to send it to the General Assembly of the
ON THE SITUATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The Government of Panama, in a cable dated
September 13, 1977, extended an invitation to the IACHR to visit Panama
and prepare a report on the situation of human rights, and gave all
possible assurances that the IACHR would be entirely free to conduct its
investigations during that visit;
At its 42nd session (Washington,
D.C., October 31 – November 12, 1977) the IACHR resolved to accept the
invitation and communicated its decision to the Government of Panama in
a cable of November 7, 1977;
A Special Committee appointed by the IACHR
conducted an in loco observation in Panama, from November 29
through December 7, 1977;
The Report of the Special Committee was
submitted to the IACHR for consideration at its 44th session
(Washington, D.C., June 8-23, 1978), which at its 580th
meeting, held on June 22, 1978, approved the Report on the Situation of
Human Rights in Panama, which was sent to the Panamanian Government on
August 15, 1978;
In a note dated October 27, 1978, that
Government forwarded its observations and comments on the Report to the
Those observations and comments basically
concern the changes that have occurred in Panama’s legal system
subsequent to the Report’s approval.
INTER-AMERICAN COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
publish the Report approved by the IACHR at its 580th meeting
on June 22, 1978, together with a communication received from the
Government of Panama on October 22, 1978, containing that Government’s
comments and observations on the Report.
reiterate its satisfaction with the measures taken by the Government of
Panama during the Special Committee’s visit and subsequent to the
visit, which are in response to the recommendations made during the in
loco observation, such as the repeal of Decree 342 and 343.
note that the recent amendments to the Constitution of Panama and the
enactment of other laws tend to improve the conditions for effective
observance of human rights.
Of the changes made in the legal system of
Panama, the following should be mentioned:
end of the enforcement of the transitory provision contained in Article
277 of the Constitution, commented upon on pages 12, 13, 119 and 120 of
the Report of the IACHR.
power given to the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives to
approve or reject the appointments of the Justices of the Supreme Court
and their alternates, the Attorney General, the Comptroller General and
the Assistant Comptroller General of the Republic; the Prosecutor and
his alternate; and
amendments by which the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives
now takes part in the legislative function.
express again its satisfaction with the decision taken by the Government
of Panama to allow, without limitations or restrictions, the return to
Panama of the citizens of that country who are now in exile.
recall that approval of the Report on the Situation of Human Rights in
Panama and of this resolution is done without prejudice to the
continuation of the regulatory processing of the individual cases on
alleged violations of human rights in Panama.
This summary of developments in the
situation of human rights in Panama during 1978 is based on information
received by the Commission in the form of general data, and individual
cases being processed in accordance with the Regulations. The
legislative changes and other measures adopted by the Government were
adequately covered in the observations submitted by the latter (see
paragraph 3 above).
RIGHT TO LIFE
Since June 1, 1978, the Commission has
received information concerning the alleged responsibility of the
Government of Panama in connection with three deaths:
Román Rivera Montenegro (Case 2936) died on June 16,
1978, in the town of Capira as a result of blows received at the hands
of the Guard following his arrest along with other members of the
opposition party. In a note dated July 17, 1978, the Government of
Panama reported to the Commission that charges had been filed against
five members of the Guard and that officials from the Third Judicial
District were investigating the matter.
Jorge Antonio Camacho Castro and Demóstenes Rodríguez
(Case 2968), university students who died from bullet wounds. Other
students were wounded while taking part in a peaceful meeting at the
Universidad de Panamá. The students were attacked by members of the
Panamanian Student Federation (Federación de Estudiantes Panameños), a
rival student organization which seems to have some connection with the
party now in power. Government authorities have been accused in this
case. An official investigation has been initiated and the Government of
Panama has responded to the Commission’s request for information.
RIGHT TO SECURITY AND HUMAN TREATMENT
With regard to the right to security and humane treatment, the
Commission recommended in its report that the Government of Panama
implement the recognized standards for classification and separation of
detainees, that it make sure that adequate medical facilities are
available to them, especially on the Island of Coiba, and that it adopt
measures to protect these individuals, so that they may not be subjected
to physical mistreatment or threats on the part of officials. No
information has been provided to the Commission with regard to the
measures taken in this report.
The only case presented to the Commission during the period of
time in question is that of Rodolfo Raúl Bravo and a number of other
individuals detained in Capira on June 16, 1978, who were tortured by
the Guard in the same incident described above in the case of Román
RIGHT TO FREEDOM: FORCED LABOR
Although the Commission recommended to
Panama that it apply domestic and international standards prohibiting
forced labor by individuals who have not been found guilty or condemned,
the Government has not informed the Commission of the measures taken in
RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL AND TO DUE PROCESS OF LAW
The Commission made a number of specific recommendations with
regard to the measures to be taken to guarantee individuals accused of
criminal offenses the adequate means to prepare and conduct their
defense (see paragraph 4, Recommendations); however, the Commission has
not been informed of the measures adopted in this area.
One of the Commission’s major concerns with regard to the right
to due process and a fair trial was the existence of night courts which
led to numerous violations of these rights. The Commission knows of no
measure taken by the Government in response to its recommendations.
RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
In its report, the Commission singled out
certain laws and situations that seemed to lead to violation of the
right to freedom of expression. The following events and situations were
denounced to the Commission during the course of 1978.
On June 2, 1978, a mob, apparently instigated by the Government,
threw rocks at radio station RADIO MIA. According to the allegations,
the calls from the station requesting police protection were ignored
until after the incident, although two police patrols could be seen from
the station while it was being attacked.
By virtue of Resolution Nº 04, of June 15, 1978, the Government
of Panama cancelled the license of JUAN BARRERA SALAMANCA (Case 3846)
for an indefinite period, due to “disrespectful comments concerning
the Vice Minister of Government and Justice, César Augusto Rodríguez
Maylin,” which it is alleged, were said during his program “The
Fourth Power,” broadcast by “RADIO FEMENINA”. On the 16th,
Barrera was arrested by agents from the G-2 and taken to a cell in the
Investigating Department (DENI) where they held him incommunicado
until 3:00 p.m. the following day.
Again in June, another two radio journalists, JULIO ORTEGA from
“RADIO MIA” and ANDRÉS VEGA from radio “LA EXITOSA” were
informed by the Ministries of Government and Justice that they had to
discontinue their political commentaries.
Decree Nº 67, of September 9, 1978, cited by the Government in
its Observations as a measure intended to give journalists professional
standing requires that journalists obtain a license from the Government.
It also requires that foreign journalists register with the Technical
Board on Journalism, where they must obtain a special license valid only
for the period of their mission. A number of sources allege that this
system has been set up in order to control possible criticism of the
RIGHT TO VOTE AND TO PARTICIPATE IN GOVERNMENT
On August 6, 1978, 505 representatives were elected to the
National Assembly of Municipal Representatives, which in October
appointed the new President of Panama. Official observers sent by the
OAS at the Government’s request presented their report on August 7,
The Commission’s first report pointed out the structural
defects in Panama’s political system. As a result of those defects,
the membership of the Assembly was not egalitarian. A number of
constitutional changes, pointed out earlier in the observations made by
the Government of Panama on the Commission’s report, could reduce the
problem. For example, in 1984 the President of Vice President will be
elected through direct popular elections.
Although the Commission has observed
gradual and steady progress in the observance of human rights in Panama,
some irregularities and limitations in terms of the full enjoyment of
those rights still persist.
At the same time, the Commission is pleased
to point out that a number of recommendations that it made to the
Panamanian Government in its earlier report have been implemented by the
Government; however since implementation of the remaining
recommendations would help to provide effective protection of the
fundamental human rights in Panama, the Commission reiterates the need
that those other recommendations be carried out to the fullest.
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