University of Minnesota

Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.44, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Panama, Doc. 38 rev. 1 (1978).




The Commission believes that the present report contains the most important information with regard to the situation of human rights in Panama from the beginning of the current Government until the first of June of 1978 and that this information permits the formulation of an opinion with respect to the observance of those rights.

The Commission believes, moreover, that it is useful to underline certain aspects, of special import, 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 of the on-site observation. During those nine years, it is necessary to distinguish two periods: one that begins in 1968, the year of the coup d'etat from which the current Government emerges and ends in 1972, when the current Constitution was approved, and another that commences with the new Constitution and continues until June 1, 1978, the terminal date for this report.

In the first period (1968-1972) the Government of Panama exercised its powers in a very arbitrary fashion, resulting in serious violations of basic human rights. Political activity was practically suppressed by the severe military regime.

In the second period (1972-1977), the regime adopted a political-juridical structure consecrated in the Constitution of 1972. Insofar as the situation of human rights, there was an evident improvement, although the following types of violations were noted: 1) the expatriation of Panamanian citizens for political reasons, in clear violation of the constitutional norms; 2) restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, expression and association, especially with regard to politics; and 3) interference in the judicial process by government officials. There has not been effective protection in the above cases because of the existence of important factors that seriously affect the independence of the judicial power, with consequent, negative effects on the freedoms and guarantees related to the due process of law.

Information at the command of the Commission, nevertheless, does not go so far as to present a picture of systematic violation of fundamental rights. Rather, that information indicates that there have been signs of progress insofar as the respect of traditional democratic freedoms, although in the opinion of one group of those interviewed by the Special Commission, this initial progress is temporary. Other interviewees emphasize that continued progress is uncertain because of the lack of an institutional system to guarantee it.

The Government of Panama itself, aware of this preoccupation, informed the Special Commission that it was willing to receive suggestions from Panamanians and from the IACHR in order to improve the observance of human rights. Manifestations of this attitude occurred during the visit of the Special Commission, as 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 Decree 343.

Likewise, the improvement of the situation referred to previously in these conclusions should be considered on the context of three situations of special relevance: the juridical and political preeminence of the Head of Government, the absence of political control by the representative organ because it does not have effective attributes in that area, and the presence of factors that interfere with the structural and operative independence of the judicial power. These three situations are closely related to the political as well as to the constitutional reality, but in any case, they constitute situation which encumber Panamanian life and tend to promote irrespect for human rights. Inclusively, those realities can affect--or do affect, according to the belief of important groups of Panamanians--the implementation of the new system of political representation and popular participation created by the regime and consecrated in the Constitution of 1972, that is to say, the system of representation by corregimientos, because, in the final analysis, the constitutional powers of the head of Government, as they are so numerous, broad, and important, give him great power, without any significant counterbalances, which by its very nature not only opens the doors 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, and also, 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 authentically representative character of the old system.

The following recommendations are for the purpose of helping the government of Panama, and in general, the people of Panama, in their desire to improve the situation of human rights:


1. To take all measures necessary to insure the effective independence of the judicial authorities and to instruct all executive officials to comply expeditiously with all judicial orders.

2. To adopt measures necessary for the protection of persons held in custody-whether for initial interrogation, detention prior to trial, 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.

3. To apply strictly the national and international norms prohibiting forced labor for persons in custody who have not been convicted and sentenced by the appropriate judicial authority.

4. To provide persons accused of criminal offenses with adequate means to prepare and conduct their defense. Some examples of the concrete steps that might be taken to reach that end 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.

5. To implement the international norms, reflected in the Constitution of Panama, precluding 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 requirements of the due process of law.

6. To take steps which would allow judicial review of cases involving persons convicted by administrative action under Decree law 342.

7. To guarantee the right of individuals to organize and assemble for peaceful political purposes and to disseminate their views among the general population.

8. To apply generally recognized norms for the classification and separation of persons in custody.

9. To accelerate efforts to relieve 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 peculiar 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.

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