In Article 21 of the Constitution of Panama, the right to personal liberty is recognized in the following terms:


No one may be deprived of his liberty, except by virtue of a written order of a competent authority issued in accordance with, legal formalities and for a reason previously defined by law.  Those executing such orders are obliged to give a copy thereof to the interested person, if he requests it.


An offender surprised in flagrante delicto may be apprehended by any person and must be delivered immediately to the authorities.


No one may be detained for more than twenty-four hours without being placed at the disposal of the competent authority. Public officials who violate this precept shall be punished by the loss of their employment, without prejudice to other penalties established by law for this purpose.


There shall be no imprisonment, detention or arrest for debts or purely civil obligations.


However, the provisions contained in Article 51 of the Political Constitution of Panama severely limit the right to personal liberty by establishing that when a state of siege is declared, the Executive is empowered to order the suspension of the exercise of this right and of other fundamental guarantees such as habeas corpus; this violates the American Convention on Human Rights and is at odds with what the Inter-American Court of Human Rights expressly stated in its Advisory Opinion Nº 8 concerning the sense and scope of Articles 7.6 and 25.1 in relation to Article 27 of the American Convention.2


Article 51 of the Panamanian Constitution states: “In case of foreign war or internal disturbances that threatens the peace and public order, a state of urgency may be declared in all or part of the Republic, and Articles 21, 22, 23, 26, 27. 29, 37, 38, and 44 may be suspended temporarily in whole or in part.”


The state of urgency and the suspension of constitutional guarantees mentioned herein shall be declared by the Executive by way of a decree approved by the Cabinet Council. The Legislative Branch, on its own initiative or at the request of the President of the Republic, must take cognizance of the decree if it extended for a period of ten days and shall confirm or revoke, in part or in whole, the decisions adopted by the Cabinet Council related to the state of urgency.


When the cause which gave rise to the declaration of the state of urgency cease to exist, the Legislative Branch, if sitting, or if not in session, the Cabinet Council, shall lift the state of urgency.


According to reports received by the Commission, since June 1987, the right to personal liberty has been seriously curtailed in Panama.


The Commission has ascertained that in Panama, the illegal detention of political dissidents without even the most elementary formalities has become the standard practice of security agencies and members of the Defense Forces of Panama. Several cases have been reported in which even the relatives of the prisoner are detained, clearly for the purpose of extracting forced confessions of his supposed involvement in some crime or to simply coerce him into surrendering to the regime's security forces if he has been in hiding.


A case in point is that of Humberto Reynolds Unamuno, whose wife, Dilsa Espino de Reynolds, and son, Carlos Humberto Reynolds, were arrested, held without trial for 92 days (from September 22 to December 24, 1988), apparently so that Humberto Reynolds Unamuno would turn himself in to the security police.  Humberto Reynolds Unamuno is currently living in exile.


Another typical case is that of Diana del Río de Batres, who was illegally detained for over five months (from September 22, 1988 to March 9, 1989) with no charge against her. Diana del Río is the sister of Major Moisés del Río, one of the soldiers who participated in the coup attempt of March 16, 1988, and now in exile. All indications are that Diana del Río was arrested so that her brother would surrender to the authorities, or that her imprisonment was intended as an example to discourage future acts of this sort among the Panamanian military. During its observation in loco in March 1989, the Commission was able to determine firsthand that Diana del Río was in a serious state of depression and anxiety. Her case was presented to the authorities a number of times by the Commission. Finally, on March 9, 1989, they agreed to release her.


Another example of arbitrary arrest is the case of Alberto Conte, who was held for 94 days without trial or charges and denied his right of defense. Finally, after he declared voluntary departure, Mr. Conte was deported.3


Isaac Ismael Rodríguez, Union leader at the state electric company, was arrested in March of 1988, and accused of having participated in a national electrical blackout and the cut off electrical power to debtor customers. He was held incommunicado from his lawyers and was tortured. Following a hunger strike and pressure exerted by fellow workers, he was released. Nevertheless, threats and persecution both to himself and his family followed his release and lead to his taking refuge in the residence of the Papal Nuncio, and in spite of efforts by the Church to allow him to remain in the country was forced into exile. When he left the country, security forces prevented the presence of reporters.


The case of Roberto Brenes, who was detained without any type of court order on December 20, 1988, by members of the Military Intelligence (G-2) branch of the Defense Forces of Panama, under the command of Major Felipe Camargo. After undergoing intense interrogation and being held in solitary confinement, Mr. Brenes was taken to the airport and placed on a flight to Miami with nothing more than his passport and the personal belongings in his possession at the time of his arrest.


Moreover, during the protests and public demonstrations called by the opposition, political dissidents were arrested en masse and held in detention for varying lengths of time. The Commission has been receiving periodic reports of those incidents. One of them concerns 162 people, most of whom were arrested after the presidential election of May 7, 1989, and were held for about 60 days without any concrete charges. The prisoners have been released gradually and cases have been brought against some of them.


Another case in point is the case pertaining to Víctor Manuel Caride González. He was present at a peaceful demonstration in Santa Ana Park on the afternoon of May 10, 1989, when armed paramilitary agents arrived and began to attack everyone within reach. Víctor Manuel Caride González was brutally beaten on the legs and arms with clubs and sustained a fracture. Subsequently, he was taken to the Model Prison where he remained for a long period without medical attention. Along with a large group of other prisoners, he was released by a Ministerial Decision dated July 12, 1989.


A more recent case is that of Antonio Gálvez, assistant to Arias Calderón, candidate for First Vice-President. He was arrested by security agents with no court order or charges against him. Gálvez was held for two months during the negotiations conducted by the Mission sent by the OAS Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs to mediate between the Panamanian Government and the opposition.  His detention was interpreted as a means to intimidate and pressure the opposition during the negotiations.


Also, the Commission has been informed of the arbitrary arrest of large number of political dissidents, who are being held at various detention centers in Panama.


The Complaints presented to the Commission establish a series of human rights violations by the Government of Panama which have provoked a state of insecurity and defenselessness of the population in the face of measures that may be employed by state agencies.


The practice of the Government of Panama has been to detain its political opponents without due process. This coupled with the violence used by the Defense Forces constitute a campaign of intimidation.


As can be gleaned from the large number of complaints presented to the Commission, a significant percentage of cases involve prolonged incarceration, denial of justice, mistreatment, and violations of the right to life.


The examination contained in this chapter allows the Commission to conclude that right to personal liberty has greatly deteriorated during the last three years. Judicial remedies aimed at protecting the right of personal liberty is limited in the very Constitution of Panama by granting the Executive not only the authority to suspend this right but also that of habeas corpus.

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1.         The right to personal liberty is recognized by Article 7 of the American Convention on Human Rights in the following terms:


1.    Every person has the right to personal liberty and security.

2.    No one shall be deprived of his Physical liberty except for the reasons and under the conditions established beforehand by the Constitution of the State Party concerned or by a law established pursuant thereto.

3.    No one shall be subject to, arbitrary arrest or imprisonment.

4.    Anyone who is detained shall be informed of the reasons for his detention and shall be promptly notified of the charge or charges against him.

5.    Any person detained shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to be released without prejudice to the continuation of the proceedings. His release may be subject to guarantees to assure his appearance for trial.

6.    Anyone who is deprived of his liberty shall be entitled to recourse to a competent court, in order that the court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his arrest or detention and order his release if the arrest or detention is unlawful. In States Parties whose laws provide that anyone who believes himself to be threatened with deprivation of his liberty is entitled to recourse to a competent court in order that it may decide on the lawfulness of such threat, this remedy may not be restricted or abolished. The interested party or another person in his behalf is entitled to seek these remedies.

7.    No one shall be detained for debt. This principle shall not limit the orders of a competent judicial authority issued for non-fulfillment of duties of support.”


2.  “In order to achieve its purpose of verifying, through the courts, the legality of a detention, habeas corpus requires that the person detained be brought before the competent judge or court to whose Jurisdiction he is subject.  Thus habeas corpus plays a vital role as a mechanism to monitor the observance of the individual's right to life and humane treatment, to prevent his disappearance or his detention at an undetermined location, and to protect him against torture or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.”  See Advisory Opinion OC/-8/87, January 30, 1987, p. 20.

3.   See Chapters on Freedom of Movement and Residence, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.