1. Recent Historical Development
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:
There 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.
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 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.
The 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.
The 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.
On 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.
On 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.
On 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.
The 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.
On 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 President.
Those 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.”
The 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.
After 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.”
On 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.
2. The activities of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Starting 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).
During 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.
During 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 civic clubs.
During 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.
The 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:
The 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.
On 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.”
The 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.
3. Method and sources
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 this report.
In 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.
Particular 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 information.
Regarding 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.
The 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.
The 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.
This 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.
The 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.
Thus, 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.”
Such 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 itself.
The 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.
With 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.