Panama - HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT - 2004 Report     [p1 of 5]   


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Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State
February 28, 2005

Panama is a representative democracy with an elected executive composed of a president and two vice presidents, an elected 78-member unicameral legislature, and an appointed judiciary. In May, voters elected President Martin Torrijos of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) in generally free and fair elections, observed by domestic and international organizations. The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, the judicial system was subject to corruption and political manipulation.

The Panamanian Public Forces consist of the Panamanian National Police (PNP), the National Maritime Service (SMN), the National Air Service (SAN), and the Institutional Protection Service (SPI). A 1994 constitutional amendment formally prohibits the establishment of a permanent military, although it contains a provision for the temporary formation of a "special police force" to protect the borders in case of a "threat of external aggression." The Ministry of Government and Justice oversaw the PNP, the SMN, and the SAN; the Ministry of the Presidency supervised the SPI. Security forces responded to civilian authority, had civilian directors, and had internal review procedures to deal with misconduct. There were occasional reports that some members of the security forces committed human rights abuses.

The market-based economy, which uses the U.S. dollar as its currency (calling it the Balboa), was based primarily on a well-developed services sector that accounted for approximately 80 percent of gross domestic product. The country had an estimated population of 3.1 million. While the economy experienced 0.8 percent real growth in 2002, it grew 4.1 percent in real terms in 2003. In November, the legislature's budget commission estimated growth for the year at 6.1 percent. Unemployment was officially estimated at 12.8 percent for 2003; however, private economists believed that it may be several points higher. Through June, inflation averaged 0.45 percent.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, despite some improvements, there continued to be serious problems in several areas. Overall prison conditions remained harsh, with reports of abuse by prison guards. Prolonged pretrial detention was a problem. The judiciary was subject to corruption and political manipulation, and the criminal justice system was inefficient and often corrupt. Despite these shortcomings, the Supreme Court ruled repeatedly that the statute of limitations would not bar cases involving killings and disappearances during the 1968-89 military dictatorship. The media were subject to political pressure, libel suits, and punitive action by government officials. Women held some high positions in the Government, including the presidency for most of the year; however, discrimination against women persisted, and violence against women remained a serious problem. Trafficking in persons was a problem despite improved anti-trafficking laws and publicity and a government crack down on traffickers. Discrimination against indigenous people and minorities continued to be a problem. The Government improved its treatment of refugees and its attention to the persons with disabilities. Child labor was a problem.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no politically motivated killings by the Government or its agents; however, security forces were suspected of unlawfully killing several persons during the year. At year's end, the PNP's Professional Responsibility Office (DRP) reported that it had opened and was investigating four cases of killings involving PNP officers during the year. The media reported at least one case of spousal killing by a PNP officer (see Section 5). At year's end, the investigation continued into the 2002 killing of a 13-year-old indigenous Wounaan girl, Aida (or Ayda) Chirimia, in the Darien village of Biroquera, reportedly within the local national police compound. At year's end, one PNP officer remained dismissed in connection with the killing.

In August, the Fourth Superior Prosecutor requested that two off-duty PNP officers be tried for homicide in the 2001 killings of two men whose bodies were found on the beach in Punta Chame. In October, the Second Justice Tribunal set December 2005 as the start of the trial. The officers remained in jail.

In August, former President Moscoso signed a document in which the country accepted responsibility before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for certain crimes committed during the 1968-89 military dictatorship, thereby opening the possibility of a dialog regarding compensation between the Government and the families of victims. In October, the Torrijos administration informed the IACHR that it interpreted this dialog as a mechanism to work individually with those victims' families who had exhausted all legal remedies before the country's courts.

In March, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Second Superior Tribunal by ruling that the prosecution of members of the former National Guard in the death of leftist leader Heliodoro Portugal was not barred by the statute of limitations. Heliodoro Portugal disappeared in 1970. In 2000, his family identified his remains by DNA as those found in an unmarked grave on the grounds of a former military base in Panama City. At year's end, the Second Superior Court ordered the detention of Ricardo Garibaldo for his involvement in the disappearance and death of Portugal and the 2002 petition before the IACHR regarding the Portugal case remained pending.

As of September, the Office of Truth Commission Continuation, originally established as the Truth Commission for 6 months in 2001 to investigate killings and disappearances believed to have occurred under the 1968-89 military dictatorship, solicited the opening or reopening of 16 cases and continued to pursue 17 other cases of killings during the 1968-89 military dictatorship.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

As of September, the Office of Truth Commission Continuation solicited the opening or reopening of 18 cases and continued to pursue 7 other cases of disappearances during the 1968-89 military dictatorship.

During the year, there were no reports of kidnapping, rape, or harassment by Colombian insurgents in Darien or Kuna Yala Provinces.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits such practices, and the public security forces generally performed in a professional and restrained manner. However, prison guards occasionally abused inmates, and according to the PNP's DRP, as of mid-August, there were 16 reported cases of police abuse against prison inmates.

During the year, police generally exercised restraint in their treatment of street protesters (see Section 2.b.).

Prison conditions remained harsh and, in some cases, life threatening, due largely to budget constraints. By December, the prison system, which had an official capacity of 7,348 persons, held 11,517 prisoners. Most prisons were dilapidated and overcrowded. Many of the problems within the prisons resulted not only from obvious overcrowding but also from the lack of separation of inmates according to the type or severity of the crime committed. Pretrial detainees often shared cells with sentenced prisoners due to lack of space.

Medical care for prisoners was inadequate. AIDS, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases were common among the prison population. During the year, the La Joya and La Joyita prisons continued to have water shortages. The European Union funded some legal, medical, and dental staff for prisons, and there was at least one doctor in each major facility. As of mid-August, 8 inmates had died.

There were some improvements in the prison system. The General Penitentiary Inspection Directorate (DGSP) hired 75 new civilian corrections officers (or "custodians") and began using all civilian custodians within El Renacer prison. In August, the Department of Corrections closed the Pacific island penal colony of Coiba, where conditions had been particularly harsh.

The DGSP largely depended on 1,425 PNP officers to supply both internal and perimeter security at all prisons. There were only 440 custodians for the entire prison system. As a result, regular PNP officers still were used to fill staffing gaps. PNP officers sometimes were untrained for prison duty and found the assignment distasteful, which contributed to tension and abuses within the prison system. Civilian custodians handled inmates within Nueva Esperanza, Tinajitas, El Renacer, and the central women's prison, which used only female officers. The DGSP did not have authority to discipline prison guards with criminal or civil sanctions; only the PNP disciplinary board could sanction a PNP agent or a custodian.

Abuse by prison guards, both PNP and civilian, was a recurrent problem. Police officials acknowledged that they received and investigated 16 cases as of mid-August.

The main prisons in Panama City included La Joya (a maximum-security facility), La Joyita, Tinajitas, the Feminine Center (women's prison), and the Juvenile Detention Center. An additional facility, El Renacer, held inmates generally accused of less serious crimes. In March, the Ombudsman's Office recommended that the Government begin the process of closing La Chorrera prison because of the overcrowded prison's extremely unsanitary conditions. By August, the Government had reduced the number of prisoners in La Chorrera from 548 to 379.

In Nueva Esperanza prison in Colon province, both male and female pavilions had separate sections for inmates convicted of administrative felonies and those convicted of violent crimes.

There were prisons of significant size in David, Santiago, and other towns. Small jails attached to local police stations around the country sometimes held prisoners for the entire length of their sentences, but the police who guarded them lacked the necessary custodial training to prevent abuses.

Female prisoners were held separately from male prisoners, and juveniles were held separately from adults. Throughout the country, conditions at women's prisons and at juvenile detention centers were noticeably better than at adult male prisons. However, female prisoners, especially those in the primary detention area, reportedly suffered from overcrowding, poor medical care, and lack of basic supplies for personal hygiene.

There was one modern juvenile detention center near Panama City. Juvenile pretrial and custodial detention centers throughout the country suffered from inadequate resources to provide for education or adequate supervision of children, although a nongovernmental organization (NGO) provided secondary school instruction to some minors in custodial detention.

The law and the Penal Code provide for conditional release programs for inmates charged with minor offenses who have served a substantial part of their sentence; however, this provision was not implemented consistently in practice. During the year, conditional releases decreased due to resistance from the autonomous Attorney General's office.

The Government generally allowed prison visits by independent human rights observers. The Ombudsman's office had a well-established prison visit program, and the Government generally allowed staff from the Ombudsman's office to speak with prisoners without monitoring. Prisoners expressed fear of retaliation if they complained. Justicia y Paz, the Catholic Church's human rights monitoring group, brought prison abuses to the attention of the authorities. The Association of New Men and Women of Panama, a gay and lesbian rights group, noted difficulty in gaining access to prisoners to provide AIDs education and training.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the Government generally observed these prohibitions. Exceptions were permitted when an officer apprehended a person during the commission of a crime, or when an individual interfered with an officer's actions. The Constitution also provides that suspects are to be brought promptly before a judge; however, lack of prompt arraignment remained a problem. The law requires the arresting officer to inform the detainee immediately of the reasons for arrest or detention and of the right to immediate legal counsel. Police arrested and detained children for minor infractions during neighborhood sweeps (see Section 5).

The PNP falls under the civilian authority of the Minister of Government and Justice. There were approximately 15,000 police officers with an estimated total budget of $147,820,000. Although its primary mission was law enforcement, the PNP was detailed for prison and border security. The Judicial Technical Police (PTJ), a semiautonomous body with leadership appointed by the Supreme Court, was a separate branch of law enforcement under the Attorney General's office and performed criminal investigations in support of public prosecutors. The law providing the legal basis for the PNP includes specific guidelines for the use of force, including deadly force; requires that police officers respect human rights; and prohibits instigation or tolerance of torture, cruelty, or other inhuman or degrading behavior. Although not all PNP personnel were trained in the use of force, the PNP provided more training during the year. In June, the Human Rights Ombudsman's office hosted a 3-day course on human rights and penitentiary procedures for PNP agents working in prisons.


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