In a cable dated September 14, 1977, the Head of Government of the
Republic of Panama, Brigadier General Omar Torrijos Herrera, invited the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to conduct an on-site visit to that
country. In this communication,
General Torrijos said the following:
has been a series of unfounded, unjust and irresponsible charges against my
Government insofar as declarations of violations of human rights … We would
welcome a report and a visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in
order that they may be made aware of the reality of our policy with regard to
human rights. We invite them to
travel to any part of Panama, to speak to anyone, and to inform the world. I
will give them the keys to our jails, and if they find any political prisoner,
they can set him free.
believe the role of the Commission should not only be to investigate violations
of human rights, but also to disprove unfounded charges.
Only in this way can the hemisphere be free of injustice, for here they
will find neither oppressor nor oppressed.
In response to that invitation, the Commission conducted an on-site visit
to Panama between November 29 and December 7, 1977. Out of it came a special report on the situation of human
rights in Panama, which was published in 1978.
The charges to which General Torrijos referred had plagued his Government
since he took power in 1968 after deposing the recently elected—for the third
time—Arnulfor Arias Madrid. In
the opinion of the Inter-American Commission, from 1968 to 1972 the Government
of Panama exercised its powers in a very arbitrary fashion, “resulting in
serious violations of basic human rights.” With the enactment of the 1972
Constitution, the human rights situation showed “an evident improvement,”
although the Inter-American Commission found that violations still persisted in
the form of expatriation of Panamanian citizens for political reasons;
restrictions of the freedoms of assembly, expression and association; and,
interference in the judicial process by government officials.
In 1978, General Torrijos announced that he would begin a process to
transfer power to democratically-elected civilians.
That process was to have culminated with free elections in 1984.
Individuals exiled for political reasons, among them Mr. Arnulfo Arias,
were authorized to return; freedom of expression was restored and the political
parties were legalized. Although he
retained command of the then National Guard, General Torrijos was replaced as
president by Mr. Aristides Royo, designated by the Assembly.
On September 7, 1977, the Torrijos-Carter Panama Canal Treaties were
signed at the headquarters of the Organization of American States.
death of General Torrijos in an airplane accident on July 31, 1981, was followed
by a period of marked instability in the ranks of the National Guard and within
the Panamanian Government. In
effect, Colonel Florencio Flores Aguilar assumed command of the National Guard,
and was displaced on year later by General Rubén Darío Paredes, who pressured
President Royo into abandoning his office in July 1982, to be replaced by
Vice-President Ricardo de la Espirella. On
August 12, 1983, General Manuel Antonio Noreiga assumed command of the National
Guard. Six months later, the
diplomat Jorge Illueca became President after the unexpected resignation of de
la Espirella. Under General
Noriega’s command, the National Guard, the Police and the Investigation
Services were combined to form the Panamanian Defense Forces.
presidential and legislative elections held in 1984, which were to have marked a
return to constitutional government, became a source of controversy and
conflict. The ruling party’s
candidate, Mr. Nicolás Ardito Barletta, was declared the winner by narrow
margin (1713 votes) over the opposition candidate, Mr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid.
The opposition, impartial international observers and, later on, Colonel
Roberto Diaz Herrera, publicly denounced that the government had committed
massive election fraud.
September 13, 1985, Dr. Hugo Spadafora Franco was murdered and decapitated.
Dr. Spadafora had been Vice Minister of Health of the Government of
Panama until he submitted his resignation in 1978, in order to fight the Somoza
Government in Nicaragua. Years
later, he collaborated with armed groups who were fighting the Government of the
Sandinista National Liberation Front. Dr.
Spadafora was assassinated while on route from Costa Rica to Panama, apparently
intending to mount a campaign against the Panamanian Government and General
Manuel Antonio Noriega. The
Commission adopted a resolution that found the Government of Panama responsible
for the death of Hugo Spadafora, as explained in the chapter of this report that
concerns the right to life.
September 27, 1985, President Nicolas Ardito Barletta, according to statements
he made later, was forced to resign by the Panamanian Defense Forces because he
had ordered that an apolitical committee be formed to investigate the
assassination of Spadafora. Ardito Barletta was replaced by the First
Vice-President, Eric Arturo del Valle.
June 6, 1987, Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, who had recently retired from the
Panamanian Defense Forces where he was Chief of staff, accused General Noriega
of having had a hand in the murder of President General Omar Torrijos, in the
1984 election fraud, in the murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora Franco, in the forced
resignation of former President Nicolás Ardito Barletta and in other episodes
of political corruption. On July 27, 1987, Colonel Díaz Herrera was violently
arrested and his family expelled from the country. A few days after his arrest,
Díaz Herrera publicly retracted the charges that he had made. After a very
brief trial, he was condemned to five years in prison and in mid-December 1987
was exiled to Venezuela.
original charges made by Díaz Herrera caused the political opposition, other
sectors of Panamanian society and the Catholic Church, to demand an exhaustive
and impartial investigation into the matters denounced, while major professional
and labor organizations aligned under the National Civilian Crusade (formed of
107 private institutions of varying affiliation) called for acts of civil
disobedience and social mobilization. This led to serious clashes with the
Panamanian Defense Forces, which put down the first demonstrations with
excessive and disproportionate violence; there were also abuses and excesses on
the part of the police against those who were arrested.
February 4, 1988, a grand jury in Miami, Florida, indicted General Noriega for
crimes associated with drug trafficking. On February 25, in a televised speech,
President del Valle announced that he had relieved General Noriega of command of
the Defense Forces. The National Assembly met in emergency session and proceeded
to remove del Valle and First Vice-President Roderik Esquivel from office; it
designated Manuel Solís Palma Minister in charge of the Office of the
events served to exacerbate the conflicts within Panamanian society as the
election process continued, a process that was to lead the elections scheduled
for May 7, 1989, and to the transfer of power to the elected authorities on
September 1. The elections were held in an atmosphere of heightened tension and
severe limitations for the opposition. According to reports by impartial
observers, in the end the opposition won. However, the Electoral Tribunal
immediately took steps to annul the elections, citing a number of problems that
arose when the normal course of the elections was altered “by the
obstructionist actions of many foreigners.”
grave events that followed, involving enormous government repression, led to the
convocation of the Twenty-first Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign
Affairs of the Organization of American States to consider “the grave crisis
in Panama in its international context,” which met on May 17, 1989. The
meeting of Consultation resolved to appoint a mission composed of the Ministers
of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador, Guatemala, and Trinidad and Tobago, so that, with
the assistance of the Secretary General of the Organization, they might assist
the parties in contention of Panama to find conciliation formulas to overcome
the existing problems.
five visits to Panama, the Mission of Ministers of Foreign Affairs prepared a
report to the Twenty-first Meeting of Consultation, dated August 23, 1989. In
that report, the Mission states that it received frequent complaints of human
rights violations by the Government of Panama. On August 24, 1989, the President
of the Twenty-first Meeting of Consultation issued a Declaration wherein he
requested the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to visit Panama again
for the purpose of “completing and updating the information on the situation
of human rights in that country.”
September 1, 1989, when the time period stipulated in the Constitution expired,
the offices of President and Vice President of Panama were left vacant and the
term of office of the legislators expired. On August 31, the Council of
State—composed of the Minister in charge of the Office of the President, the
Ministers of State, the President of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General of
the Republic and the Chief of the Panamanian Defense Forces—designated Ing.
Francisco Rodríguez to serve in the Office of the President. It also instituted
a legislative committee composed of 41 members to discharge the functions of the
Assembly, among them the job of drafting a new Electoral Law. The Panamanian
authorities themselves have expressed the view that the formula employed is not
provided for in the Constitution.
in June 1987, the Inter-American Commission began to receive numerous and
serious complaints of violations of the human rights set forth in the American
Convention of Human Rights, of which Panama is a State Party, particularly the
right to humane treatment (Article 5); the right to personal liberty (Article
7); the right to a fair trial (Article 8); freedom of thought and expression
(Article 13); the right of assembly (Article 15); freedom of association
(Article 16); the right to property (Article 21); freedom of movement and
residence (Article 22); political rights (Article 23); and, the right to
judicial protection (Article 25).
its 74th session, held in September 1988, the Commission decided to request the
Panamanian Government’s permission to conduct an on-site visit in order to see
firsthand and evaluate the situation of human rights in that country. A few days
later, the Panamanian Government invited the Commission to make the visit, which
it did between February 27 and March 3, 1989. The Commission’s delegation was
composed of Dr. Marco Tulio Bruni Celli, President of the Commission; Ambassador
Oliver Jackman and Dr. Leo Valladares Lanza, members of the Commission; the
Assistant Executive Secretary, Dr. David Padilla; Drs. José Miguel Vivanco and
Bertha Santoscoy, and Miss Gloria Sakamoto, staff of the Executive Secretariat
of the Commission.
its stay in Panama, the Commission held talks with the highest government
authorities, such as: the Minister in charge of the Presidency of the Republic;
the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Forces; the Ministers of Foreign Affairs
and of Government and Justice; the Presidents of the Supreme Court of Justice
and of the Electoral Tribunal; the Attorney General of the Nation and with the
President and certain members of the Legislative Assembly. The commission also
spoke with representatives of various sectors of Panamanian society such as:
human rights groups; political parties; the communications media; the Catholic
Church; business, union and trade organizations; humanitarian organizations, and
the course of that visit, the Commission also had an opportunity to visit the
following detention centers: the Model Prison; Coiba Penal Colony; the David-Chiriquí
Prison; the Women’s Rehabilitation Center; and, Room 31 of the St. Thomas
Hospital, where prisoners undergoing medical treatment are held.
Commission’s visit coincided with a particularly tense moment in Panama’s
political life inasmuch as the country was in the midst of an election process
that would culminate with the presidential, legislative and district elections
that took place on May 7, 1989, which were subsequently annulled by the
Electoral Tribunal, as pointed out earlier. As explained, the Twenty-first
Meeting Consultation convoked under the Charter of the Organization of American
States, received the report of the Mission, dated August 23, 1989, which, among
other things, states that during its activities, it received repeated and
frequent complaints of violations of human, civil and political rights,
committed by the present Government. On August 24, 1989, the President of the
Twenty-first Meeting Consultation issued a Declaration, approved at the seventh
plenary session, point 4 which reads a follows:
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested to conduct, with the consent
of the Government of Panama, another visit to Panama at the earliest possible
date for the purpose of completing and updating the information on the situation
of human rights in that country.
August 25, 1989, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested that
Panamanian Government’s consent to conduct that visit. In a communication
dated September 12, 1989, the Government of Panama granted permission for the
visit to be made “as of November of this year.”
Commission, sitting at it 76th Regular Meeting, thanked the Government of Panama
for its consent, and taking into account the commitments of the members of the
sub-commission as well as importance of having this report ready for the General
Assembly, scheduled to commence on November 13, proposed that the on-site visit
take place on November 6-8. The Panamanian Government, for its part, proposed
that the visit be carried out after November 20, thus depriving the Commission
of an important opportunity to up-date the information at its disposal for this
report concerns the situation of human rights in Panama from June 10, 1987, the
date on which the President of the Republic of Panama, by Decree N° 56,
declared a State of Urgency throughout the national territory and ordered the
suspension of a number of rights established in the Panamanian Constitution, up
to of September 26, 1989, the date on which the Commission provisionally adopted
drafting this report, the Commission has drawn especially upon the information
that was obtained during the observation in loco that the special
commission of the IACHR conducted in Panama from February 27 50 March 3, 1989.
As previously mentioned, the Commission regrets that the Government of Panama
failed to give its consent for a second on-site visit on a date that would have
allowed it to obtain greater information for the preparation of this report.
consideration has been given to the complaints and testimony received both on
that occasion and as well as before and after that visit, although this report
is certainly not a mere compilation of those complaints, testimony, and
the use of individual complaints or cases in this report, the Commission wishes
to note that they are illustrative of the different topics and situations dealt
with in this account seeking thus a more objective presentation of the human
rights situation in Panama.
Commission wishes to clarify that the presentation of these individual cases,
where their processing has yet to be concluded, does not necessarily imply a
final prejudgment thereon. Each individual case contained in this report, once
the subject of a complaint, has been or will be duly processed according to the
Commission’s Rules of Procedure, which is not yet finalized, will culminate in
a report or resolution on the merits of the denunciation. Some of the individual
cases included in this report have already led to resolutions. Those cases where
the Government of Panama has requested reconsideration such as occurred for
example, in the case of the murder of Dr. Spadafora, have been subjected to a
thorough examination in light of the information supplied by the Government.
When they are still cited in the report, it is because the Commission is
convinced that remission is not warranted. In situations in which the Commission
has decided to include a case, the processing of which is as yet incomplete, it
is because the Commission has at its disposal sufficient evidence of probable
cause to allow it to determine, prima facie, the veracity of the
complaint, particularly when the observations presented by the Government of
Panama have failed to effectively gainsay the facts described in the Report.
laws in the Republic of Panama, the jurisprudence of its court and the
international laws that apply in the area of human rights have also been given
special consideration, as have the reports supplied to the Commission by the
Government of Panama, by human rights organizations, --both Panamanian and
international--, and reports that appeared in the Panamanian and foreign press.
report, likewise, takes into account the “Preliminary Observations of the
Government of Panama to the Report on the Human Rights Situation of Panama done
by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.” The observations dated
October 30, 1989, were sent to the Commission by way of a note of the same date
signed by Abelardo Carles, Minister in charge of Foreign Affairs. On the basis
of the thorough examination of this document, the Commission proceeded to make
some changes in the Report which had been provisionally approved on September 26
and sent to the Government of Panama on September 29.
Commission will not address some observations made by the Government of Panama
in its October 30 Preliminary Observations, dealing with the motives guiding the
Commission’s behavior in preparing this report. Nevertheless, the Commission
must express its concern that such appreciation reveals a failure to acknowledge
the international obligations assumed by Panama in the field of human rights.
in its Introduction to its Preliminary Observations, the Panamanian Government
states: “… the Commission, with a politico-ideological bias, has limited its
attention to those rights related directly to a notion of democracy defined as a
government resulting from an electoral process in conformance with the
traditional requirements of the United States.” And “… the human rights
analyzed are those which gradually, both in the United States as well as in
other American democracies have shown that they are subject to being used as
instruments to sustain and impose structures of privilege which directly and
definitively limit the effectiveness of other human rights. The intent of this
attitude expressed both in the official jargon of the foreign policy of the
Unites States and the limited sensibility of the Commission is to deny the right
of people to establish their own priorities with respect to human rights.”
statements, because they contradict principles contained in the American
Convention of Human Rights itself, cannot be ignored. The analysis of human
rights contained in this report is based in letter and spirit on the American
Convention of Human Rights, to which Panama has been a state party since its
ratification on July 22, 1978. The rights to life, personal integrity, justice,
due process, freedom of thought and expression are hardly “Instruments to
sustain and impose structures of privilege that directly and definitively limit
the effectiveness of other human rights.” They are unavoidable obligations
from which neither Panama nor any other member state of the OAS may exclude
observance of such rights, in the judgment of the Commission may not be
subordinated to the “right of the people to establish their own priorities
with respect to human rights” in the manner in which the Government of Panama
interprets it. Such a priority has already been established in the Constitution
of Panama and in treaties such as the Pact of San Jose of 1969 that bind Panama.
respect to political rights and the concept of democracy “limited to a
government resulting from an electoral process,” the Commission has done
nothing more than apply the OAS Charter and Article 23 of the American
Convention of Human Rights to the situation at hand. The latter instrument
recognized the right of every Panamanian citizen to “vote and to be chosen in
periodic, fair elections through universal and equal suffrage by secret vote
that guarantees the free expression of the will of the elector.”
The Commission, must therefore, again underline that its relations with the Government of Panama and the actions it has taken with respect to that Government, including the preparation of this report, have been done in strict fulfillment of the provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Panama is a party. The analysis of other matters that affect Panama, including specific international political circumstances, are beyond the scope of the Commission’s work insofar as they are not reflected in the Panamanian legal system in the area of human rights, and fall within the jurisdiction of other organs of the Inter-American system such as the General Assembly or the Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, bodies to which the Commission shall send this Report so that they might take whatever decision they deem appropriate.