I.  Background


          In its 1990/91 Annual Report the Commission referred to the human rights situation in Panama both before the invasion of December 20, 1989, and after the events that took place at that time and in the subsequent months of transition and organization of the new authorities.  Among its main recommendations, the Commission then pointed to the need for reparations for the families that were victims of the armed struggle of December 1989; for investigation and punishment of the violations that have occurred in recent years; for strengthening and modernizing the system of justice; and for guarantees of political rights and the rights to association and expression.


II.  General context and situation of human rights


          In 1991, the various state powers functioned in accordance with constitutional precepts and in general there was respect for the separation of governmental powers, the normal operations of the political parties, the press and communication media, and civil associations in general.  During its second year of government, the administration headed by President Endara had to face certain minor attempts at disruption of order by members of the armed forces, some of them retirees, which did not succeed in interrupting the operations of the constitutional government, and they were settled by means of the legal system.


          On December 9, 1991, there was a riot organized by about 300 former members of the defunct Defense Forces, most of them belonging to the Public Force (Police), under the leadership of Col. Eduardo Herrera.  According to the Government, this riot sought to bring about a coup d'etat and to put it down the government turned to the support of United States forces stationed in the Canal Zone.  Throughout the year there were various reports on alleged attempts at a coup, but there is no evidence that such attempts had meaningful support from the security forces or that they seriously endangered constitutional stability.


          During the current year, the Executive Branch sent Congress a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at, among other things, giving constitutional status to the dissolution of the army, which had been carried out by a decree in early 1990.  The first draft of this constitutional proposal was approved by the Legislative Assembly on December 26, 1991, with the requirement that, in order for it to enter into effect, it be approved by a new legislative assembly and later by popular referendum.


          The aforementioned constitutional amendment would change 58 articles of the Political Constitution, including, in addition to abolition of the army, establishment of the institution for "defensor del pueblo," (ombudsman), aimed at defending the individual and social rights of citizens and strengthening the Electoral Tribunal's full autonomy, guaranteeing it 0.7% of the Central Government's current revenues.  Also envisaged are procedures whereby the Legislative Assembly will be the entity to determine the number of members of the police forces and whereby it will be able to judge the highest ranking national government and administrative attorneys.


          The Commission has not received any complaint concerning violation of human rights by the new police force called the Public Force, which was established during that same period, recruiting for the most part former members of the defunct defense forces.  Also established at that time were the Technical Judicial Police, the Customs and Border Police, and the Institutional Protection Service, aimed at protecting the authorities and diplomatic corps.


          Among the measures aimed at demilitarization of the members of the Public Force, the Government emphasizes establishment of the Police Academy, which is attended by new members as well as the old members of the Defense Forces who joined the new police institution. Included among priority matters are human rights, police procedures, community relations, police ethics, first aid, and techniques of protection.


          During the final months of 1991 there have been several episodes involving a matter of concern to the Commission because their evolution may cause conditions that would provoke violation of human rights.  On November 28, 1991, state agents, including members of the Institutional Protection Service, raided several private security guard agencies, seeking weapons and evidence related to an alleged plot against constitutional order.  These inspections were allegedly made without the corresponding judicial order, and when they were made state security agents threatened to confiscate cameras of journalists who were witnessing the activities.  Although the Government maintains that these raids and inspections were authorized by the Ministries of the Interior and Justice, they do not seem to have been carried out by court order.


          On the other hand, the Commission is concerned by information received on the current proliferation of private security agencies, which now amount to about 105 enterprises with a total of 12,000 armed members, who number more than the personnel of the three branches of the Public Force (air, sea and police).  Less than half of these agencies are duly registered with the authorities.  In previous inspections numerous weapons belonging to the disbanded Defense Forces were found in the hands of these agencies.


          The numbers and types of weapons involved are of concern to the Commission because the situation could develop in ways that would lead to violations of the Convention.  A government may be expected to anticipate and prevent such development.


          The Commission has received information that an active legislator has been suspended from his duties by order of the Attorney General of the Executive Branch due to alleged crimes against the public administration and the municipality of Panama City.  In this regard, the Commission has taken cognizance of the Legislative Assembly's unanimous resolution condemning this event, which is an attack on the guarantees of that branch of government.


          The problems that have existed for many years in Panama with the administration of justice continue to affect the Panamanian people's human rights.  According to information by the country's Attorney General himself in December 1991, due to the judicial branch's work overload and the complexity of procedures, 90% of the detainees have not received verdicts and are still under investigation or are being prosecuted.


          The detainees include 10 civilians and 26 military personnel who held high positions in the previous Government and were prosecuted by this Government for various crimes.  More than two years after they were place under arrest, most of them are still awaiting trial.  The Commission has received information to the effect that their trials are being unreasonably delayed, past the legal time limit under Panamanian law.


          The Commission has also been informed that some of those being held are in poor health and that the authorities have not given them the opportunity to get the medical care they need to ensure their personal integrity and right to life.


          With regard to the stability of judicial officials and independence of judges, the Commission has received information on putting into force the Judicial Career Law, which was suspended by the previous administration.  Nevertheless, this Career is not actually in effect because, for technical and financial reasons, the Supreme Court of Justice, as the administrative institution of the Judicial Branch, has not been able to implement its precepts.


          The chronic problem of prison crowding has not yet been solved. For example, at the prison in David with allegedly more than 200 prisoners, there are beds for only 70.  In the case of the Model Prison and the Colon Prison, there seems to have been no perceptible decrease in the overpopulation pointed out in our previous reports, which, as occurs in many other member countries, makes respect for the prisoners' right to life and physical integrity an illusion.


          During the first half of 1991, there have been five murders in the Panamanian prisons.  The Commission wishes to stress that the state is responsible for the lives as well as the health treatment of individuals under prison custody and jurisdiction.


          However, stress should be placed on the favorable fact that a law amending the Code of Criminal Procedure has been approved.  This authorizes the imposition of penalties or precautionary measures without the need for prison confinement.  It should also be stressed that the Government has begun steps toward construction of a new penal establishment that would alleviate some of this overpopulation, and toward the remodeling of several penitentiaries.  The Government has informed the Commission of the start-up of plans for reorganization of programs for literacy training, work training, and establishment of workshops and industrial areas geared to prisoners at penal establishments.


          With regard to the parties injured by the invasion of December 20, 1989 and the subsequent struggle, the Commission has received information on efforts by the Government to remedy some of the most distressing situations, although in the opinion of various sectors, many of the cases of injuries due to those events have not been satisfactorily resolved.  In fact, according to available information, there has been no redress at all to the families whose members were killed or wounded during the armed struggle.


          According to government reports, the housing needs of the 2,860 families in the Chorrillo area have been solved, whose dwellings were lost during the events of December 1989.  It should be stressed that in late October new dwellings were conveyed to some of the last 54 families that still live temporarily at Camp Albrook.  In August the Government also gave one million dollars to small businessmen of that neighborhood who lost their businesses.


          It should be pointed out with regard to socioeconomic rights that, according to local experts, the country is still experiencing the effects of a crisis that began in 1987.  According to official figures, about 15% of the work force, that is 133,000 workers, are unemployed; and 550,000 Panamanians live under the poverty line, half of them in extreme poverty.  The Government points out in this regard that an economic growth process that will create new employment opportunities is under way.  It points out that gross domestic product rose in 1990 by 6.1%, and that similar growth is expected in 1991.


          The Commission has received information on the dismissal of public sector trade union leaders based on Law 24/90.  This law was issued soon after installation of the constitutional Government to remove from their duties individuals who had committed crimes or had abused their authority during the previous administration.  The Commission stresses that the Attorney General of the Nation himself has indicated that ILO Agreements 87 and 98, ratified by Panama, have been violated by the dismissal of about 500 public sector trade union leaders, whose employment stability was protected by Panamanian rules of law and by the aforementioned international agreements, among others.


          Finally, the Commission has observed with satisfaction Panama's ratification of the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights with regard to abolition of the death penalty, and the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, which were deposited at the OAS General Secretariat on August 28, 1991, and ratification of the Inter-American Convention on Extradition by the Executive Branch on December 26 of that same year.


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