During its forty-seventh session, held in Washington D.C., the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decided to include in its Annual Report to the General Assembly, a summary of the developments in the situation of human rights in Panama during 1978.


          This first report published by the Commission on the Situation of Human Rights in Panama (OEA/Ser.L/II.44, doc. 38, rev. 1, June 22, 1978), published on December 8, 1978, went only as far as June 1 of that year.  Based largely on data obtained during an in loco observation, the report presented that following conclusions and recommendations:




                    The Commission believes that the present report contains the most important information with regard to the situation of human rights in Panama from the current Government’s taking power until the first of June of 1978, and that this information permits the following comment with respect to the observance of these rights.


          The Commission believes, moreover, that it is useful to underline certain special aspects, 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 from the on-site observation. During these nine years, two periods should be distinguished, one which begins in 1968, the year of the coup d’état from which the current Government emerged and which ends en 1972, when the current Constitution was approved, and a second which commences with the new Constitution and continues until June 1, 1978, the date in this report.


          In the first period (1968-1977), the regime adopted a political-juridical structure set forth in the Constitution of 1972. With respect to human rights situation, there was evident improvement, although the following types of violations could be noted: 1) the expatriation of Panamanian citizens for political reasons, in clear violation of the Constitutional provisions; 2) restrictions on the freedom of assembly, expression and association, especially when of a political nature; and 3) interference in the judicial process by government officials. There has not been effective protection of the above rights because of important factors which seriously affect the independence of the judiciary, with resultant, negative fall out on the freedoms and guarantees related to the due process of law.


          Information available to the Commission, however, does not go so far as to present a picture of a systematic violation of fundamental rights. Rather, such information indicates that there has been progress as regards respect for traditional democratic freedoms, although in the opinion of one group interviewed by the Special Commission, such progress is temporary. Other interviewees emphasized that continued progress is uncertain because of the lack of an institutionalized base to guarantee it.


          The Government of Panama, aware of this problem, informed the Special Commission that it was willing to receive suggestions from Panamanians and from the IACHR to improve the observance of human rights. This attitude was expressed during the visit of the Special Commission, for example, 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 in the context of three particularly relevant conditions: the juridical and political preeminence of the Head of Government, the absence of political control by the representative body, because it does not have the necessary powers for that purpose, and the existence of factors that interfere with the structural and operative independence of the Judiciary. These three conditions are closely related to the political as well as to the constitutional reality, but, they constitute situations which encumber Panamanian life and tend to promote a lack of respect for human rights. These realities can affect—or do affect, according to important groups of Panamanians—the implementation of the new system of political representation and popular participation created by the regime and set forth in the Constitution of 1972, that is to say, the system of representation by districts (corregimientos). In the final analysis, the constitutional powers of the Head of State, which are very broad give the Head of State great power without any significant counterbalances, which by its very nature not only opens the door 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, not to mention, 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 representative character of the old system.


          The following recommendations are intended to assist 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 necessary measures to insure the independence of the Judiciary and to instruct all officials of the Executive branch to comply with all judicial orders.


          2.          To adopt the necessary measures for the protection of persons held in custody—whether for interrogation, pre trial, detention, 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 strictly apply the national and international rules prohibiting forced labor of 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 present their defense. Some steps that might be taken 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 Panamanian Constitution which, for example, precludes 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 requirement of the due process of law.


          6.          To take steps to allow judicial review of cases involving persons convicted by administrative action under Decree Law 342.


          7.          To guarantee individuals the right 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 the 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 particular 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.


          In accordance with the Commission’s practice the report, including the conclusions and recommendations were sent to the Government of Panama; the Commission requested the Government to formulate its observations or comments. In a note dated October 27, 1978 the Government replied in the following terms, detailing the legislative changes that had been made and specifying the measures taken to improve the observance of human rights:


         Mr. Edmundo Vargas Carreño

         Executive Secretary of the

         Inter-American Commission of

           Human Rights

         Organization of American States

         Washington, D.C.


         Dear Mr. Vargas:


         At the instructions of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Panama, Dr. Carlos Ozore T., I have the honor to convey to you observations and comments on the report on the situation of human rights in Panama, approved by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at its Fortieth Session.


         First of all, we are pleased to note that mention is made in the introduction of the report of the fact that the Commission’s on-site observation was based on an express invitation by the Head of the Panamanian Government, General Omar Torrijos Herrera, dated September 13, 1977 as well as of the statement to facilitate by all means the performance of its mission were extended to the IACHR, which enabled it for the first time in its history to examine the functioning of a country’s criminal justice system, and that this was due to the full cooperation of the Government of Panama.


         We are also pleased to observe that the comments made under the heading “Legal Framework,” although rather condensed, reflect quite objectively that the constitutional and legal provisions in effect in Panama are clearly aimed at guaranteeing respect for an observance of human rights.


         According to the chapter on conclusions, the report intends to reflect the status of rights in Panama up to June 1, 1978. Without analyzing at this time whether that purpose is fully accomplished, and refraining from examining specific aspects of the report, we believe that to end it at that date does not present an adequate reflection of the Panamanian situation. From June until the present date, basic changes have occurred which, in our opinion, should be included in the report. These changes are of such importance that they cannot be left aside. The report, if published in its present version, would reflect some situations that no longer exist.


         As one example, we mention the fact that last October 25 the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives approved an Act amending the Constitution of Panama. This Act amends Articles 41, 129, 140, 141, 143, 145, 146, 147, 148, 149, 150, 151, 152, 153, 154, 157, 163, 164, 172, 173, 180, 181, 235, 237, and added Articles 153A and 153B.


         Next we should like to comment on the content of the constitutional amendments and other significant aspects, which in our opinion, should be taken into account for inclusion in the Commission’s report.


         I. Constitutional Amendments


         The amendments to the Constitution include matters of major importance, such as the following:


         1) The legislative function shall be exercised by the Plenum of the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives and the National Legislative Council. In accordance with Article 146, as amended, the National Legislative Council shall be set up in the following manner.


         1. The President of the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives who shall preside. In his absence, the Vice President shall replace him;


         2. Four (4) Municipal Representatives from each Province and one (1) from the Region of San Blas and the Municipality of Puerto Obaldía for a term of two (2) years. They shall be chosen by a majority vote of Representatives of each province in an election among and by the Representatives of the municipalities of the respective province at a meeting to be convoked and chaired by the Vice President of the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives of the Province every two (2) years, within ten (10) days following October 11. Each of these members shall have an alternate representative who shall be a municipal representative and who shall be elected in the same manner.


         3. Two (2) provincial representatives and one (1) from each political region or division created by law in the indigenous areas and their respective alternate representatives, elected by direct popular ballot for a term of six (6) years. The provisions of the Constitution contained in Articles 133 and 134 shall be applicable to the provincial representatives, except that residence shall refer to the province; Articles 135 and 136, and, in the latter case, the restriction in the first paragraph is extended to the state; Article 137, except where prior authorization must be given by the National Legislative Council; and Article 139.


         The provincial representatives referred to in paragraph 3 shall be elected in 1980 with the participation of the political parties.


         2) As of 1984, the President and Vice President of the Republic are to be elected directly.


         3) Among the administrative functions of the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives are the following:


         “To approve or reject the appointments of the Justices of the Supreme Court and their alternates, the Attorney General, the Comptroller General and the Assistant Comptroller General of the Republic, the Prosecutor and his alternate.”


         4) As of October 11, 1977, Article 277 of the Constitution ceased to be in effect.


         The members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are surely not unaware of the impact of these amendments, and they will be able to make an exhaustive analysis of that impact on the basis of the text of the Reform Act, a copy of which is attached.


         II. Political Parties


         On October 5, 1978, the National Legislative Council approved Law 81 of October 5, 1978, governing political parties and establishing January, 1979 as the time for them to receive legal standing through the corresponding registration process.


         The text of Law 81 of 1978 is attached.


         III. Practice of Journalism


         Through Law 67 of September 19, 1978, journalism is given professional standing. A copy of this Law is also included.


         IV. Exiles


         Apart from the aforementioned aspects, we also wish to bring to the attention of the Commission the fact that the same day the United States Senate approved the resolution ratifying the Canal Treaty, the Head of the Panamanian Government announced that there would be no limitations or conditions for the return of exiles to the country. This has been honored.


         V. Pardon of Common Criminals


         The Panamanian Government’s respect for freedom is also demonstrated in specific actions such as Decree Nº 3 of October 10, 1978, whereby a pardon was decreed in favor of 215 common prisoners who deserved a pardon for good conduct. A copy of this decree is also attached.


         It is not our intention to comment on each of the individual cases referred to in the report. The Commission’s requests for information have been amply and promptly met. We shall continue to respond in this manner.


         Finally, we wish to state to the members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the Panamanian Government continues to recognize that body’s role, which is not only to investigate violations of human rights, but also to disclaim, through its reports, unfounded charges made against countries such as ours that respect those rights.


         Please accept the assurances of my highest consideration.


         Juan M Manuel Castulovich

         Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs


          Because of the cooperation provided by the Government of Panama in providing documentation and adopting measures that contributed to the observance of human rights in a number of areas, the Commission decided, as indicated in the following resolution, to publish its report, but not to send it to the General Assembly of the Organization.







         The Government of Panama, in a cable dated September 13, 1977, extended an invitation to the IACHR to visit Panama and prepare a report on the situation of human rights, and gave all possible assurances that the IACHR would be entirely free to conduct its investigations during that visit;


         At its 42nd session (Washington, D.C., October 31 – November 12, 1977) the IACHR resolved to accept the invitation and communicated its decision to the Government of Panama in a cable of November 7, 1977;


         A Special Committee appointed by the IACHR conducted an in loco observation in Panama, from November 29 through December 7, 1977;


         The Report of the Special Committee was submitted to the IACHR for consideration at its 44th session (Washington, D.C., June 8-23, 1978), which at its 580th meeting, held on June 22, 1978, approved the Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Panama, which was sent to the Panamanian Government on August 15, 1978;


         In a note dated October 27, 1978, that Government forwarded its observations and comments on the Report to the IACHR;


         Those observations and comments basically concern the changes that have occurred in Panama’s legal system subsequent to the Report’s approval.







         1. To publish the Report approved by the IACHR at its 580th meeting on June 22, 1978, together with a communication received from the Government of Panama on October 22, 1978, containing that Government’s comments and observations on the Report.


         2. To reiterate its satisfaction with the measures taken by the Government of Panama during the Special Committee’s visit and subsequent to the visit, which are in response to the recommendations made during the in loco observation, such as the repeal of Decree 342 and 343.

         3. To note that the recent amendments to the Constitution of Panama and the enactment of other laws tend to improve the conditions for effective observance of human rights.


         Of the changes made in the legal system of Panama, the following should be mentioned:


         a) The end of the enforcement of the transitory provision contained in Article 277 of the Constitution, commented upon on pages 12, 13, 119 and 120 of the Report of the IACHR.


         b) The power given to the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives to approve or reject the appointments of the Justices of the Supreme Court and their alternates, the Attorney General, the Comptroller General and the Assistant Comptroller General of the Republic; the Prosecutor and his alternate; and


         c) The amendments by which the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives now takes part in the legislative function.


         4. To express again its satisfaction with the decision taken by the Government of Panama to allow, without limitations or restrictions, the return to Panama of the citizens of that country who are now in exile.


         5. To recall that approval of the Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Panama and of this resolution is done without prejudice to the continuation of the regulatory processing of the individual cases on alleged violations of human rights in Panama.


          This summary of developments in the situation of human rights in Panama during 1978 is based on information received by the Commission in the form of general data, and individual cases being processed in accordance with the Regulations. The legislative changes and other measures adopted by the Government were adequately covered in the observations submitted by the latter (see paragraph 3 above).




          Since June 1, 1978, the Commission has received information concerning the alleged responsibility of the Government of Panama in connection with three deaths:


          a)          Román Rivera Montenegro (Case 2936) died on June 16, 1978, in the town of Capira as a result of blows received at the hands of the Guard following his arrest along with other members of the opposition party. In a note dated July 17, 1978, the Government of Panama reported to the Commission that charges had been filed against five members of the Guard and that officials from the Third Judicial District were investigating the matter.


          b)          Jorge Antonio Camacho Castro and Demóstenes Rodríguez (Case 2968), university students who died from bullet wounds. Other students were wounded while taking part in a peaceful meeting at the Universidad de Panamá. The students were attacked by members of the Panamanian Student Federation (Federación de Estudiantes Panameños), a rival student organization which seems to have some connection with the party now in power. Government authorities have been accused in this case. An official investigation has been initiated and the Government of Panama has responded to the Commission’s request for information.




          a.          With regard to the right to security and humane treatment, the Commission recommended in its report that the Government of Panama implement the recognized standards for classification and separation of detainees, that it make sure that adequate medical facilities are available to them, especially on the Island of Coiba, and that it adopt measures to protect these individuals, so that they may not be subjected to physical mistreatment or threats on the part of officials. No information has been provided to the Commission with regard to the measures taken in this report.


          b.          The only case presented to the Commission during the period of time in question is that of Rodolfo Raúl Bravo and a number of other individuals detained in Capira on June 16, 1978, who were tortured by the Guard in the same incident described above in the case of Román Rivera.




          Although the Commission recommended to Panama that it apply domestic and international standards prohibiting forced labor by individuals who have not been found guilty or condemned, the Government has not informed the Commission of the measures taken in this report.




          a.          The Commission made a number of specific recommendations with regard to the measures to be taken to guarantee individuals accused of criminal offenses the adequate means to prepare and conduct their defense (see paragraph 4, Recommendations); however, the Commission has not been informed of the measures adopted in this area.


          b.          One of the Commission’s major concerns with regard to the right to due process and a fair trial was the existence of night courts which led to numerous violations of these rights. The Commission knows of no measure taken by the Government in response to its recommendations.




          In its report, the Commission singled out certain laws and situations that seemed to lead to violation of the right to freedom of expression. The following events and situations were denounced to the Commission during the course of 1978.


          a.          On June 2, 1978, a mob, apparently instigated by the Government, threw rocks at radio station RADIO MIA. According to the allegations, the calls from the station requesting police protection were ignored until after the incident, although two police patrols could be seen from the station while it was being attacked.


          b.          By virtue of Resolution Nº 04, of June 15, 1978, the Government of Panama cancelled the license of JUAN BARRERA SALAMANCA (Case 3846) for an indefinite period, due to “disrespectful comments concerning the Vice Minister of Government and Justice, César Augusto Rodríguez Maylin,” which it is alleged, were said during his program “The Fourth Power,” broadcast by “RADIO FEMENINA”. On the 16th, Barrera was arrested by agents from the G-2 and taken to a cell in the Investigating Department (DENI) where they held him incommunicado until 3:00 p.m. the following day.


          c.          Again in June, another two radio journalists, JULIO ORTEGA from “RADIO MIA” and ANDRÉS VEGA from radio “LA EXITOSA” were informed by the Ministries of Government and Justice that they had to discontinue their political commentaries.


          d.          Decree Nº 67, of September 9, 1978, cited by the Government in its Observations as a measure intended to give journalists professional standing requires that journalists obtain a license from the Government. It also requires that foreign journalists register with the Technical Board on Journalism, where they must obtain a special license valid only for the period of their mission. A number of sources allege that this system has been set up in order to control possible criticism of the Government.




          a.          On August 6, 1978, 505 representatives were elected to the National Assembly of Municipal Representatives, which in October appointed the new President of Panama. Official observers sent by the OAS at the Government’s request presented their report on August 7, 1978.


          b.          The Commission’s first report pointed out the structural defects in Panama’s political system. As a result of those defects, the membership of the Assembly was not egalitarian. A number of constitutional changes, pointed out earlier in the observations made by the Government of Panama on the Commission’s report, could reduce the problem. For example, in 1984 the President of Vice President will be elected through direct popular elections.




          Although the Commission has observed gradual and steady progress in the observance of human rights in Panama, some irregularities and limitations in terms of the full enjoyment of those rights still persist.


          At the same time, the Commission is pleased to point out that a number of recommendations that it made to the Panamanian Government in its earlier report have been implemented by the Government; however since implementation of the remaining recommendations would help to provide effective protection of the fundamental human rights in Panama, the Commission reiterates the need that those other recommendations be carried out to the fullest.



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