University of Minnesota

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




A. Background

1. An observation in loco may be carried out at the initiative of the Commission, with the consent of the government in question, or it may be a response to an invitation from the government. This on-site observation originated with the following invitation extended by General Omar Torrijos, the Head of Government of the Republic of Panama, in a cablegram of September 13, 1977:

There has been a series of unfounded, unjust and irrespo0nsible charges against my Government insofar as declarations of violations of human rights. In Panama we are not perfect, but we do respect the human rights of all persons who live within our geography, and the new canal treaties are a symbol, for the world, of our desire to eliminate discrimination and injustice. We would welcome a report and a visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in order that they 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.

I 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 oppressors not oppressed.

2. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights replied, as follows, in a cablegram of November 7 1977:

I refer to your kind cablegram of September 14, last, by which your Excellency indicated to me that, your Government having been the object of unfounded charges with regard to violations of human rights, you would welcome the visit of this Commission so that it might be made directly aware of the reality, and report on the situation. It pleases me to inform your Excellency in reply that the Commission, being aware of the terms of this invitation, has expressed unanimously its willingness to accept it without delay in order to carry out an on-site observation. In conformity with such decision, I will soon be in touch with the Ambassador of Panama to the Organization of American States in order to arrange with him the details with regard to the date and duration of that visit, the program of activities that the Commission would undertake during the visit and the facilities and cooperation that should be accorded by Panamanian officials for the adequate fulfillment of this mission, in conformity with the regulations of this Commission for on-site observations. Thanking your Excellency in behalf of the Commission for this demonstration of your preoccupation in the interest of the protection and observance of human rights, I reiterate assurances of my esteem and consideration.

Andrés Aguilar


3. The regulations mentioned in the above cablegram are embodied in the following resolution which is transcribed in full:


(Adopted by the IACHR in November, 1977)

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights,


That Article 11 of its Statute and Article 50 of its Regulations empower the Commission to move to the territory of any American State with the consent or by the invitation of the respective government for the purpose of carrying out an on-site observation;


1. The on-site observations that the Commission agrees upon shall be carried out in accord with the following norms:

a) The Commission shall determine the composition of the Special Commission charged with the on-site observations;

b) The Special Commission or any of its members shall be able to interview, freely and in private, persons, groups, entities, or institutions, the Government being obligated to grant the pertinent guarantees to all those who may give the Commission information, testimony or evidence of any kind;

c) The members of the Special Commission shall be able to travel freely to any part of the territory of that country, and shall be provided for that purpose with official documents for their identification;

d) The Government shall assure the availability of local means of transportation;

e) The members of the Special Commission shall have access to the jails and all other detention and interrogation centers and shall be able to interview in private those persons sentenced or detained;

f) The Government shall provide the Special Commission with any document or information related to the observance of human rights that it may consider necessary for the preparation of its report;

g) The Special commission shall be able to utilize an appropriate method for collecting, recording or reproducing the information that it considers pertinent;

h) The Government shall adopt adequate measures of security for the protection of the Special Commission;

i) The Government shall assure the availability of adequate lodging for the members of the Commission.

2. The guarantees and facilities indicated in the preceding paragraph shall be extended to the personnel of the Secretariat that may accompany the Commission.

3. The expenses incurred by the Special Commission, each of its members and the personnel of the Secretariat shall be borne by the Organization of American States, subject to the pertinent dispositions of the regulations.

B. Organization and Activities of the Special Commission

1. The Special Commission designated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for the on-site observation in Panama included three members: Dr. Andrés Aguilar, President of the IACHR, Dr. Fernando Volio Jiménez and Professor Tom Farer. They were accompanied by the following personnel of the Secretariat of the IACHR: Dr. Charles Moyer, Dr. Roberto Alvarez, and Dr. Robert E. Norris, staff attorneys; Mrs. Hilda Wicker, secretary; and Mrs. Yoly Toro, documents technician.

2. In order to assure its independent character, the Special Commission adopted various measures. It arranged for lodging and offices in private hotels in each of the cities visited, and with the exception of official transportation provided for visits with governmental representatives and the trip to the Island of Coiba, the Special Commission utilized public means of transportation. It also developed its own program of activities, designed to provide maximum contact with representative sectors of society and to facilitate its inquiry into matters called to its attention.

3. The on-site observation began on November 29th and ended on December 7th. Upon its arrival, the Special commission issued a press bulletin for the purpose of informing the public of the objectives of the visit and inviting interested persons and 0organizations to present complaints of an individual nature or to share their views with regard to the situation of human rights in Panama.

4. During its stay, the Special Commission visited the three most populous cities of Panama--Panama City, Colón, and David, the capital of Chiriquí Province which was reputed to be a center of opposition to the current government. In Panama City, it held extensive discussions with government officials, including Demetrio Lakas, the President, General Omar Torrijos, the Head of Government, Lt. Col. Manuel Noriega, Head of Military Intelligence (G-2), the Minister of Government and Justice, the Attorney General, the Justices of the Supreme Court and members of the National Legislative Council. Meetings were also held with local police officials such as chiefs of police, prison directors, and in David, the Head of DENI. In the town of Boquete, the Special Commission met with the mayor, representatives to the National Assembly of Corregimientos, and municipal councilmen.

At its own locale in each city, the Special Commission received those individuals who requested audiences, along with the representatives of professional associations (including lawyers, businessmen and journalists in particular), labor unions, political organizations, student groups and civic clubs. It also called upon spokesmen for various religious groups.

The Special Commission inspected several major correctional institutions: the Cárcel Modelo (Model Jail) and the Centro Femenino de Rehabilitación (Women's Rehabilitation Center) in Panama City; the prison colony on the Island of Coiba; and the jail in David. Members of the Commission were allowed to talk freely and in private with prisoners selected at its discretion in each of the establishments, to view the cells, and to take note of the general conditions. Prison guards kept their distance, and prison officials were particularly helpful in supplying information from their files.

5. The Government of Panama gave its full cooperation to the Special Commission and helped to create an atmosphere favorable to its program of activities. With official support, the visit was adequately publicized in the national press and on radio and television, yet no attempt was made to convey the impression that the Special Commission was present in conjunction with the Government.

The Government of Panama supplied, during and subsequent to the visit, all documentary materials requested by the Commission, including copies of official inquiries, case files, court decisions and prison records.

C. Sources

The sources utilized in the preparation of this report fall into three general categories: laws, copies of official documents and the information supplied by the Government of Panama; published and unpublished material submitted by complainants or third parties; and, the interviews held and the personal observations made by the members of the Special Commission and its staff. The three small volumes published by the Panamanian Committee on Human Rights (September, November, December 1976) were particularly helpful to the Special Commission in identifying issues prior to its visit.

In accord with the Regulations of the IACHR, the name of any organization or private person that has submitted complaints or has supplied information relevant to this report shall be maintained confidential unless it was specifically indicated to the Commission that confidentiality was unnecessary.

D. Organization of the Report

1. The first chapter of the report will focus upon the legal framework relevant to human rights in Panama: the international obligations of that country, its Constitution and laws. The following chapters will deal with those rights considered of particular pertinence to the situation of human rights in Panama, and the final chapter will contain the general conclusions and recommendations of the Commission.

The report will take into account any information that the Commission believes should be considered, along with any findings, comments or recommendations by the Commission.

2. In an attempt to facilitate an understanding of the situation of human rights in Panama, this report will distinguish in appropriate chapters between allegations of politically motivated violations and those unrelated to political motives. Chapters II (Life, Liberty and Personal Security), III (Protection from Arbitrary Arrest), and IV (Due Process and Fair Trial), for example, lend themselves to this distinction. However, in the case of Panama, Chapters V (Freedom of Expression), VI (Right of Assembly and Association), VII (Right to Residence and Movement) are more related to the political scene, while Chapter VIII (Right to vote and participate in government) is inherently of a political nature.

The opportunity for an on-site observation and the full cooperation of the Government of Panama made it possible for the Special Commission to examine the functioning of the regular criminal justice system. Recognizing that there are problems in all systems of criminal justice, the Special Commission has, nevertheless, given some emphasis to the study of alleged violations of human rights in his area, for it considers this type of violation as serious as those which are politically inspired. The number of persons affected by the malfunctioning of a nation's criminal justice system is often great, and the personal damage suffered by the individual is usually irreparable.

3. Individual situations brought to the attention of the Commission and mentioned in this report, as well as others not included, may be processed as individual cases in accord with the Regulations of the IACHR.


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