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Human Rights Developments

      Two years after the December 1989 invasion by U.S. forces, serious deficiencies in the Panamanian judicial and penal systems remain largely unimproved. Extremely lengthy pretrial detention _ in some cases lasting up to five years _ continues to be the rule for defendants accused of crime. According to the Panamanian government's own figures, at least eighty percent of the more than 3,500 prisoners in jail have not been convicted or even, in many cases, formally charged. Although this represents a decline from the ninety percent figure reported a year ago, the number of pretrial detainees in custody for more than two years has actually increased slightly since the end of 1990. A government plan to identify and process the cases of those held longest in prison without trial has had no discernible impact.

      Americas Watch is concerned not only by the inordinate length of pretrial detention, but also by the conditions in which inmates are held. Every one of Panama's five principal jails is seriously overcrowded, and in some cases the prison population is more than triple the facility's maximum capacity. These conditions breed intense, and sometimes fatal, prisoner-against-prisoner violence. For example, in the Modelo jail in Panama City alone, there were six murders during a four-month period in late 1990 and early 1991. Partly in response to these conditions, prisoners at Modelo staged an uprising in September, which authorities were able to suppress only after several prisoners were wounded. Although most prison violence in Panama is instigated by prisoners themselves, credible reports indicate that inmates at the Coiba Island facility were also severely and systematically abused by their jailers in 1991. Two inmates at Coiba who died in July are believed to have been victims of torture by prison officials, and more than 170 fellow inmates have complained of serious physical and psychological abuse. Government sources have acknowledged that abuses at the Coiba facility were confirmed in reports by lower-ranking prison officials that were later suppressed by the Ministry of Government and Justice.

      Panamanian officials do not deny the seriousness of the problems posed by prolonged pretrial detention, a crushing backlog in the courts, and substandard prison conditions. Over the past two years, however, they have had virtually no success in addressing these deficiencies. Fifteen new public defenders were appointed in 1991, but the total number now, thirty-one, is still five fewer than required by Panamanian law and far fewer than needed to serve the thousands of accused who lack the resources to retain private counsel. Four new courts were added in early 1991, but even though the pace of judicial activity is reported to have increased substantially, there were still more than 25,000 criminal cases pending in the courts at mid-year, many of which had been referred for prosecution over two years earlier. No new prison facilities have been built or even begun since the invasion.

      The Panamanian government's poor performance in improving the administration of justice is frequently explained by the lack of funds available in a country with pressing social-welfare needs and continuing economic dislocation caused by the U.S. boycott prior to the invasion. However, mismanagement, political cronyism, corruption and a lack of institutional will also have contributed significantly to the failure of judicial and penal reform in Panama. Throughout the first half of 1991, for example, the attorney general's office was beset by waves of firings and dismissals having little to do with issues of competence. The attorney general himself, Rogelio Cruz, at times appeared to devote more energy to attacking his critics in the press, and to publicizing dubious charges of attempted coups, than to the day-to-day responsibilities of his office. Moreover, in at least two cases, lower-court judges who issued politically unpopular orders to release certain defendants on bail were rebuked by the Executive branch and fired by their supervisory judges. In addition, in April 1991, disputes within the Executive over patronage and other issues led to the ouster of the Christian Democratic Party from the ruling coalition; as a result, many officials responsible for the administration of justice, including Vice President and former Minister of Government and Justice Ricardo Arias Calderon, left their posts, and the reforms they had advocated have not been pursued.

      These systemic shortcomings are compounded by the Panamanian government's continued unwillingness to address the most serious human rights violations committed by members of the former Noriega regime. To date, no one responsible for the more prominent abuses of the former government _ including the murder in 1971 of activist priest Hector Gallego, and the torture and murder of Hugo Spadafora in 1985 _ has been brought to trial. Indeed, the government is able to cite only one successful prosecution thus far of a Noriega-era official _ a military captain sentenced to forty-two months for extortion. Fewer than thirty other former officials currently face charges for past abuses, a number which many believe does not come close to representing the level of past abuse.

      Americas Watch remains concerned by the composition, leadership and training of the Panamanian Public Force (PPF), which replaced Noriega's Panamanian Defense Force (PDF). Although the most senior officials of the PDF were removed following the invasion, the vast majority of PDF soldiers, numbering more than ten thousand, were retained as members of the PPF. Only approximately half of these have undergone U.S.-sponsored training programs designed to improve the professionalism of Panama's principal law-enforcement agency and enhance its respect for human rights. So far, politically motivated abuses by the PPF appear to be rare, at least by comparison to the record compiled by the PDF, but corruption and lawlessness are continuing: among other incidents, PPF members were implicated in a bank robbery in Panama City and the theft and destruction of property in Chiriqui province, and there are persistent reports that the PPF provides assistance to drug smugglers in several sections of the country. Frequent turnovers at the top of the agency have hampered the government's ability to identify and control such misconduct. Since the invasion, there have been six PPF directors. The most recent resignation, in October, was forced because of the director's open participation in party politics, in violation of constitutional prohibitions. The resignation before that, in April, resulted from the Christian Democratic Party's ouster from the coalition government of President Guillermo Endara.

      Apart from the PPF, President Endara has created an Institutional Protection Service (IPS) of between six and nine hundred members whose activities are of concern to many Panamanians. Charged with protection of the office of the president, the IPS is believed to carry on the wiretapping program of Noriega's G-2 intelligence service. In addition, the structure of the IPS _ its members are heavily armed, do not wear uniforms or badges, and have no clearly defined chain of command _ poses a constant risk of return to the paramilitary-style abuses of the Noriega era. These concerns are reinforced by widespread reports, never denied by President Endara, that both the IPS and the Public Security and National Defense Council are headed by Menalco Solis, a former Noriega minister and ally.

      In upholding the freedoms of expression and association, the current government represents a substantial improvement over the prior regime. Public protests are not uncommon and, with a few notable exceptions, have not been met with official violence. The range of political expression is far broader than it was under Noriega: anti-government viewpoints are heard daily on television and radio, and a number of newspapers that are harshly critical of the government publish regularly. Freedom from censorship is not absolute, however. Anti-Endara radio stations have been the subject of highly selective enforcement of technical operating requirements, and the government on occasion has blocked the import of foreign magazines containing detailed articles concerning corruption in various ministries.

The Right to Monitor

      Americas Watch is unaware of any cases of government persecution of national or international human rights monitors or obstruction of their work in 1991. This reflects the general increase in freedom of expression and freedom of association that has been the most positive contribution of the Endara government to the human rights climate.

U.S. Policy

      Like most Panamanian officials, U.S. representatives are quick to acknowledge the serious shortcomings that plague the judicial and penal systems in Panama. Through an "Improved Administration of Justice" project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States is committed to help improve the operations of the judiciary and prosecutor's office. The means employed include professional training, the development of nonpolitical career tracks, modern case-management techniques, and material assistance such as computers and additional courtrooms. However, despite its laudable objectives, the modest program _ a total of twelve million dollars to fund the program's five-year expected duration _ has not, so far at least, materially affected the Panamanian legal system. Nor has the United States publicly used its leverage to encourage prosecution of the offenses committed under the Noriega regime.

      The United States continues to refuse to pay reparations to the families of civilians killed during the fighting _ even those killed because of the U.S. failure to give effective advance warning to the civilian population of its attack on a heavily populated zone, as required by the laws of war. Although the United States has provided some money for housing, the funds fall far short of the amount necessary to rehouse all the families whose homes were destroyed in December 1989.

      The United States has declined to pursue further certain troubling issues raised by the casualties of the invasion. Americas Watch has concluded, as have other monitoring groups, that the total number of Panamanians killed is not likely to have exceeded 350. But the circumstances under which the dead were killed remains shrouded in mystery, mainly because no contemporaneous autopsy or other investigation was conducted in the majority of cases. Nor, in many cases, were the dead buried in individual, clearly marked graves, as required by the laws of war. The later U.S. efforts on this issue appear to have been designed more for public relations purposes than to obtain an honest accounting of the conduct of U.S. forces.

The Work of Americas Watch

      An Americas Watch representative visited Panama between February 21 and 26 to investigate the administration of justice in the country. The representative met with government officials, local human rights and prison monitors, attorneys and criminal defendants. In addition, the representative conducted follow-up inquiries concerning the issue of invasion casualties. In April, Americas Watch published a newsletter summarizing the conclusions of this mission, "Human Rights in Post-Invasion Panama: Justice Delayed is Justice Denied." The Americas Watch mission was covered widely by the Panamanian media.

      On July 17, an Americas Watch representative testified about human rights conditions before the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. The testimony later was relied upon by the subcommittee in questioning representatives of the Administration about human rights in Panama and the conduct of U.S. forces during the invasion.

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