RIGHT TO HUMANE TREATMENT1
Article 28 of the Constitution of Panama provides that:
The penitentiary system is based on principles of security, rehabilitation, and defense of society. The application of measures that violate the physical, moral or mental integrity of prisoners is prohibited.
Prisoners shall be given training that will permit them to be reintegrated into society.
Minors shall be subject to a special regime of custody, protection, and education.
Since the crisis of June 1987 a pattern has emerged in the behavior of the Panamanian authorities toward the opposition in the form of violations of the right to personal integrity.
Since Colonel Díaz Herrera’s revelations and the subsequent declaration of a state of emergency, a large and growing opposition has taken to the streets of Panama to protest peacefully against the Government. These demonstrations, frequent at first and later at longer intervals, consisted of marches, convoys of vehicles, honking of car horns, the use of symbolic colors, the waving o white handkerchiefs, and banging on pots and pans.
These demonstrations have been met typically by two forces: the riot-control police, who have been dubbed “the dobermans,” and paramilitary goon squads, recently named the “Dignity Batallions.”
Both forces have routinely violated the physical integrity of Panamanian citizens. At first the crowds were contained with rods and canes. With birdshot fired from sawed-off shotguns–normally not fatal–they have wounded more or less seriously about 1,500 persons, according to estimates of the Panamanian Human Rights Committee.
What is more, the leaders of the marches and the front-rank marchers have been forcibly detained, brutally mistreated, and usually carried off to the Model Jail in the capital city.
These prisoners have been shoved into overcrowded cells and then singled out for corporal punishment, including beatings with rubber hoses, and blows with fists and rifle butts.
In these large-scale operations, generally speaking, no sophisticated tortures have been used. The rule has been indiscriminate brutality combined with the withholding of food and drink.
Nor have attacks been confined to protesting crowds in the streets. The riot-control police (the “dobermans”) and paramilitary squads have entered hospitals, secondary schools, and the premises of universities and other institutions. Spectators and passers-by have suddenly found themselves caught up in the violence, of which they received their indiscriminate share. Medical personnel going about their task, and patients, including the children and the aged, have been beaten up and tear gassed. The irony of these actions is that they have been justified in the name of maintenance of order and peace.
Panamanian and foreign physicians alike say that the use of birdshot to quell protesting crowds has been a particularly barbaric practice in the violation of physical integrity. Demonstrators and passers-by alike have been wounded indiscriminately. During its visit to the scene last February the Commission interviewed a man whose left foot and a third of his leg were so severely damaged by the shots of the riot-control police that they had to be amputated. His name is Felipe Pérez; his complaint is corroborated by Panamanian physicians.
Another practice worth reporting is the release of tear gas in enclosed places. Tear gas has been shot inside the Children’s Hospital, the Cancer Hospital in Panama City, and the Santo Tomás and Metropolitan Hospitals. The Commission has received numerous reports of tear gas bombs detonated inside apartments, and in one case thrown into a car through its window by soldiers wearing gas masks. These and other reports are borne out by eyewitness accounts compiled by the Commission and by Panamanian and foreign human rights groups, as well as by Panamanian physicians, nurses and dentists.
In the jails the prisoners have been placed in overcrowded cells together with common criminals, and in some instances aggressive homosexuals. The Commission was told that some political prisoners were sexually assaulted. This particular practice obviously proved a considerable deterrent to later public demonstrations.
Unlike the mass detentions followed by beatings and other mistreatment intended to intimidate and punish, but stopping short of killing, a considerable number of individuals have been arrested and subjected to more systematic forms of torture in the offices of the Defense Forces Intelligence–G-2–and in those of the security forces as DENI (National Investigations Department). The Commission has accounts of the use of electric shock on various parts of the body, including the genitals, of people hung by their wrists, the use of masks, the removal of all their clothing, prolonged sleep deprivation, being kept in handcuffs or bound for long periods of time, cold showers in cold rooms, and solitary confinement.
As a general rule, persons rounded up in attacks on protesters have been detained for a short time: they were “taught a lesson” and released. Persons singled out for individual arrest, however, have been frequently kept captive for extended periods.
The motive for this second type of detention has apparently been to obtain information. At times, however, they have culminated in the prisoner being compelled to sign a statement admitting guilt and expressing his personal intention of exiling himself “voluntarily.” In some instances prisoners have been put on commercial aircraft and sent out of the country with the warning that formal police charges were outstanding against them and they would be arrested if they returned.
Following is a sampling of specific cases that illustrate the patterns described above.
a) Hundreds of persons were detained in an opposition march on July 10, 1987. Many leaders were arrested, among them Carlos Valencia, of the Industrialists’ Union; Guillermo Fernández, President of the Exporter’s Association, and Lorenzo Hincapié, Director of the Chamber of Commerce. Most of the people detained on this occasion were members of the middle and working classes. The information supplied to the Commission indicates that beatings and sexual abuse of prisoners were common. The Commission has videotapes that provide photographic evidence of police brutality in the streets.
b) Jorge Cazasola, a radio announcer, was arrested by the G-2 on June 12, 1987, and beaten with rubber hoses during his interrogation. He was force to drink large quantities of water. His captors threatened to hang or drown him. He was transferred to the Model Prison and set free four days later.
c) Roberto Arosemena, university professor and General Secretary of the Popular Action Party, was arrested on October 20, 1987 and taken to G2 headquarters, where the then Chief of Police struck him repeatedly. He was moved to the Coiba prison and freed on October 30 of that year.
d) Ricardo A. Marrone Vergara, a 31-year old accountant, was shot in the face and neck on April 28, 1988, by members of Government-organized paramilitary groups as he sat in his car having stopped at a corner to buy cigarettes.
e) Fernando A Fernández was arrested on May 13, 1989, by DENI agents and three members of the RRD, the Government’s political party, and was taken blindfolded under the Pácora bridge, where his captors beat him and cut him with a knife. A large “T”—for the “Triumph” of the Government--was carved on his right thigh, in revenge, he was told, for his work on behalf of the Christian Democratic Party during the election campaign.
The foregoing accounts show that the right to humane treatment has been repeatedly violated by Government agents in Panama. In the Commission’s judgment there is incontrovertible evidence of degrading and at times cruel and inhuman treatment of Panamanian citizens who criticize or oppose the Government.
1. Article 5 of the American Convention on Human Rights reads as follows: “1. Every person has the right to have his physical, mental and moral integrity respected. 2. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment. All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. 3. Punishment shall not be extended to any person other than the criminal. 4. Accused persons shall, save in exceptional circumstances, be segregated from convicted persons, and shall be subject to separate treatment appropriate to their status as unconvicted persons. 5. Minors while subject to criminal proceedings shall be separated from adults and brought before specialized tribunals, as speedily as possible, so that they may be treated in accordance with their status as minors. 6. Punishments consisting of deprivations of liberty shall have as an essential aim the reform and social adaptation of the prisoner.”