Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1986
Panama is legally a representative democracy with a
Constitution which mandates the direct popular election of
the President, legislators, and municipal representatives;
establishes an independent judiciary; and guarantees broad
civil and individual rights. In practice, however, the Panama
Defense Forces (PDF), despite constitutional proscriptions on
their political activity as an institution, continue to
dominate national politics.
On September 28, President Eric Arturo Delvalle completed one
year in office. As First Vice President, Delvalle assumed the
presidency after Nicolas Ardito Barletta was forced from the
office by the PDF and political leaders of the governing
coalition. The 1984 general elections, which brought the
Barletta-Delvalle slate to office, remain a source of friction
between the Government and opposition parties. The prolonged
vote tabulation process was marked by irregularities and drew
charges of fraud from the opposition coalition, which
ultimately rejected the electoral tribunal's count as invalid.
Since mid-1984, Panama has been confronted with overriding twin
fiscal problems: a heavy external debt burden and a large
government budget deficit. In March 1986, at the urging of its
international creditors, the Government passed a reform package
which reduced tariff protection of domestic industry, loosened
the country's restrictive labor code, and established tax and
export incentives in the agricultural sector.
There was no progress in 1986 toward a solution of the
September 1985 murder of regime opponent Hugo Spadafora.
However, there were no political murders during the year.
The most serious erosion of human rights in 1986 occurred in
the area of media freedom. While the Constitution guarantees
broad civil rights, and while an active opposition press
exists, during 1986 the Government applied a controversial
libel law unevenly to punish opposition media for certain
criticisms of the Government and the PDF.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including
a. Political Killing
No political killings occurred during 1986. Some media have
suggested official involvement in the July death, ruled a
suicide, of Rotary president Serafin Mitrotti. Mitrotti was
not known as an opponent of the Government. The September 1985
murder of Hugo Spadafora, a critic of PDF Commander Manuel
Antonio Noriega, also remains a source of tension between the
Government and the opposition. On December 19, 1985, the
Attorney General formally closed his investigation of the
Spadafora case and sent the file to the Fourth Superior Court
in Chiriqui Province for the investigation of charges of
complicity in the murder against three members of the PDF.
In February 1986, the Court dismissed these charges and
effectively closed the case. It appears unlikely that it will
be reopened, despite the efforts of the Spadafora family and
opposition elements to keep public attention focused on it.
No disappearances were reported in 1986.
c. Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or
The Constitution prohibits measures that harm the physical,
mental, or moral integrity of persons under detention.
Although there is no indication of systematic abuse of
prisoners, there have been credible reports of instances of
PDF abuse of detainees. For example, both opposition and
other media reported that agents of the PDF's intelligence
branch struck and kicked 10 members of the Christian Democratic
Youth Movement detained October 8 for their role in the seizure
of the office of the Legislative Assembly president. The
opposition press has reported three other instances of PDF
abuse of detainees during 1986: the tabloid Extra reported
February 22 that an epileptic was beaten by three members of
the PDF; La Prensa reported August 12 that a complaint was
filed against a PDF junior officer for beating a father and
son after illegally entering their home; La Prensa reported
September 27 that a law school student was admitted to a
clinic in critical condition due to a beating by PDF members
after he was arrested for participating in the September 26
occupation of the Social Security Fund offices.
Overcrowding in Panama's prisons continues to be a major
problem. This is attributed to a lack of funding and an
overburdened judicial system. The average population of the
Central Men's Prison in Panama City, built in 1925 to
accommodate 225, is now well over 700. Prisoners must "rent"
beds from other inmates or sleep on the floor. Food rations
are basic, largely rice. Supplemental foodstuffs and other
prison services not provided may be purchased by those able to
pay. There have been occasional newspaper articles criticizing
the conditions in the prisons and charging that they violate
internationally recognized human rights.
The El Renacer Rehabilitation Center, formerly the Canal Zone
Prison, has recently undertaken a number of reforms, including
better treatment of prisoners in terms of diet and physical
and mental health. There have also been improvements in
building maintenance and staff discipline and a general effort
to make the facility a true "rehabilitation center."
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The Constitution establishes the right of a detained person to
a judicial determination of the legality of his detention and
requires warrants for arrest, except for persons arrested
during the commission of a crime. A suspect may be detained
for no more than 24 hours without being charged and brought
before a magistrate. The police must inform accused persons
immediately of the reasons for their detention and of their
constitutional and legal rights. Failure to comply with these
constitutional provisions has led to invalidation of sentences.
However, constitutional guarantees are not always honored.
For example, opposition columnist Guillermo Sanchez Borbon was
detained for several hours on February 18 after presenting
himself at the public prosecutor's office to give testimony on
libel charges growing out of the Spadafora murder case. He
was never informed of the reasons for his detention. Sanchez
was released after a few hours when friends and supporters
posted $5,000 bail. He subsequently printed an account of his
experiences while detained, including threats of physical
abuse by other inmates.
In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, a U.S.
citizen. Jack Sachs, detailed his illegal detention by the
investigative branch of the PDF. Mr. Sachs, traveling in
Panama on private business, was detained on July 10, held for
nearly 5 days without being charged or informed of the reasons
for his detention, and was refused permission to telephone his
family or the U.S. Embassy. On July 14, despite a judge's
finding that there was no legal basis for holding him, Sachs
was turned over to Panamanian Immigration officials rather
than being released from custody. He was deported the
following day, again without being informed of the reason for
After being charged with a criminal offense, an accused person
may be held for as long as necessary for authorities to conduct
the investigation and bring the case to trial. The judicial
system suffers from a chronic backlog, frequently resulting in
prison stays of up to 1 year for detainees awaiting trial.
Much of the overcrowding in the prisons is a result of the
large number of such detainees. Time spent in jail awaiting
trial counts toward completion of the final sentence for those
There have been reliable and frequent reports that defense
attorneys ask clients for funds to bribe judicial authorities
to move their clients' cases forward on court dockets or to
secure their release from jail without benefit of a court
order. There have also been credible reports that detainees
secure release by bribing prison and immigration officials.
The possibility of conditional release from custody on bail
exists for persons accused of most crimes. The most
noteworthy exception is for international narcotics
trafficking; an individual accused of this crime is explicitly
denied recourse to bail.
Under Panama's criminal code, a convict may be required to
perform labor on public works projects if the sentencing judge
so specifies. The prisoner's sentence is reduced by 2 days for
every day spent in such work. There is no other legally
sanctioned compulsory labor.
The Constitution prohibits punishment by exile.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
» Persons charged with crimes are presumed innocent until proven
guilty and have the right to counsel. The local bar
association and national university law school offer legal
counsel at nominal fees. The Government provides public
defenders for indigent defendants but only after the pretrial
phase. Although the criminal code provides for public trials
based on oral testimony and argument, in practice most trial
procedures are conducted with written presentations by the
prosecution and defense without the presence of the accused;
the defendant is rarely present during the trial procedure.
The documents produced are available for examination by both
sides. In general, the burden of proof rests on the
prosecutor. The right to appeal a verdict is available the to
k prosecution and the defense. Homicide cases differ from
normal procedure in that the accused is present and is tried in
an open courtroom. A guilty verdict and sentencing in homicide
cases results in automatic appeal.
Although the Constitution prohibits self-incrimination, there
have been charges that juveniles and poor people with criminal
records have been detained and pressured during interrogation
to confess to crimes they may not have committed. Other
reported practices — publicly criticized in the Panamanian
press by government officials and private citizens — include
summary proceedings and convictions for misdemeanors by police
magistrates or night court judges without duly prescribed
defense counsel. Although crimes tried before police
magistrates are considered to be minor offenses, these courts
have the authority to impose burdensome penalties on those
found guilty. The magistrate courts may sentence a person to
corrective detention for up to 1 year, restrict a person's
freedom of movement by house arrest, and impose fines up to
$600. The sentences of police courts may be appealed in some,
but not all, cases to the next higher official in the police
hierarchy, usually the mayor or governor.
The Supreme Court is chartered to uphold the Constitution and
the laws. Magistrates are barred from simultaneously holding
other public office or otherwise participating in politics.
Supreme Court magistrates, who are nominated by the President
with the consent of the Legislative Assembly, nominate all
lower court judges. The President, with the consent of the
Legislative Assembly, appoints the Attorney General. The
Attorney General appoints superior court district attorneys,
who in turn nominate circuit district attorneys. Many legal
authorities, including one Supreme Court magistrate, have
publicly questioned the integrity of the judicial system.
Opponents of the Government have charged that the Supreme
Court is subservient to the PDF.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home or
Privacy of the family generally is respected. Under the
Constitution, judicial warrants must be issued before officials
may enter homes. Members of the opposition have reported
receiving anonymous telephone calls threatening them and their
families. They attribute these calls to the intelligence
branch of the PDF.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and press, and
both the progovernment and opposition press exercise these
freedoms. The Panamanian media regularly report criticism of
government officials and policies expressed in the Legislative
Assembly and by the general public.
Nevertheless, there was some erosion of freedom of expression
in Panama in 1986. The Government, specifically the Ministry
of Government and Justice (MGJ), has repeatedly applied a
controversial libel law (Law 11 of 1978) against opposition
journalists and newspapers. Law 11 permits sanctions ranging
from public admonition and fines to the closing of media
outlets. The Ministry's rulings can be appealed to judicial
authority on procedural but not substantive grounds. The main
opposition daily La Prensa and the tabloid Extra, which
frequently criticize government officials and policy, have
found themselves increasingly under pressure; the MGJ has
required them to substantiate their reporting — and on one
occasion an editorial — with "evidence," or suffer
On May 27, the Minister of Government and Justice announced a
government campaign to regulate the media and ensure that all
were complying with Panamanian law. The MGJ issued two
judgments against the progovernment Renovation Press (ERSA)
group in 1986 and over a dozen against the opposition. In
January, the MGJ fined the ERSA publication La Republica $500
for printing an inaccurate article about a local civic
leader. In early June, the MGJ fined ERSA journalist Carlos
Nunez $2,500 for his article carried by progovernment Critica
charging that a Panamanian citizen had been denied exit from
the country by court order. At the same time, the MGJ warned
Critica to cease publishing caricatures of political
The MGJ ' s pressure has focused primarily on two opposition
journalists — Guillermo Sanchez Borbon and Miguel Antonio
Bernal — and two opposition media outlets — La Prensa and Radio
Mundial. As noted, Sanchez was detained without charges for
several hours on February 18. He was summoned to appear again
at the prosecutor's office on July 9, but instead sought asylum
at the Venezuelan Embassy, departed Panama, and remains in
voluntary exile. Sanchez said he had been warned by a
Government source that if he appeared he would be jailed again,
this time without bail.
Bernal also was summoned to the public prosecutor's office on
July 9 to respond to a calumny charge filed by the Minister of
the Presidency. Upon finishing his statement, Bernal was
arrested. He was released several hours later, after
supporters posted the maximum $5,000 bail. Earlier in the year
the MGJ had revoked "for life" Bernal 's radio broadcasting
license and fined him $2,500 for his alleged inability to
substantiate statements he made during an April 15 broadcast
on Radio Mundial characterizing Panama as a "center of
narcotics trafficking." The MGJ ' s fine was the maximum
permissible under Panamanian law. The Supreme Court denied
Bernal ' s appeal of the judgment, stating that he had not
exhausted the administrative means available for appeal.
Acting under the provisions of Law 11, the MGJ issued a formal
citation demanding that the opposition daily La Prensa
substantiate statements in its July 9 editorial charging that
the administration of justice in Panama is corrupt and an
instrument of state power. This citation was noteworthy
because it applied to a statement of judgment rather than of
fact. La Prensa presented what it considered the evidence
supporting its editorial opinion and subsequently challenged
the constitutionality of Law 11. Another opposition paper.
Extra, joined the challenge after it too was fined for
antigovernment statements. On December 18, the Supreme Court
ruled that Law 11 is constitutional, a decision which could
have a significant negative impact on freedom of expression in
The opposition's access to the electronic media is limited.
Opposition figures own no television stations in Panama, and
only five radio stations. Opposition groups charge that they
are unable, for political reasons, to acquire radio or
television licenses from the Government.
On May 22, the MGJ closed Radio Mundial, the only opposition-
owned radio station in the capital, stating that the station
was operating on an unauthorized FM frequency, one it had been
using for nine years. Radio Mundial was owned by opposition
politician Carlos Ivan Zuniga and included among its
commentators well-known opposition legislators. Zuniga
subsequently completed a number of modifications to bring the
station into compliance with broadcast regulations. The
Government permitted Radio Mundial to resume broadcasting on
The MGJ also closed another Zuniga-owned station. Radio 10, in
an interior province, again for unauthorized use of a
frequency. The closing came in the midst of a Radio 10
campaign urging listeners to participate in a rally in Panama
City for Hugo Spadafora.
Official pressure on the opposition media can be applied in
other ways. On January 29, the state electricity company,
IRHE, cut off power to the sensationalist tabloid El Siglo.
The newspaper claimed that its electricity payments were
current. Semi-independent La Estrella de Panama printed El
Siglo' s editions until power was restored. On April 9, IHRE
cut power to three radio stations owned by the brother of a
progovernment , but independent, legislator, stating that the
stations had been "misbilled," and were $15,000 in arrears on
their electric bill. The "misbilling" was discovered by IHRE
shortly after one station featured an interview with the
Spadafora family attorney. Although IRHE accepted
responsibility for the error, it offered no special
arrangements to settle the account. By contrast, three
months' grace was accorded the Government's Democratic
Revolutionary Party (PRD) after the opposition Christian
Democratic Party discovered and publicized that the PRD was
$121,720 in arrears with IHRE.
There were incidents of physical violence directed largely
against opposition journalists and media, none of which has
been solved. On January 12, unidentified persons fired
shotguns and damaged an automobile parked at La Prensa owned
by the newspaper's legal advisor. On March 16, the
transmission tower of progovernment Radio Poderoso Stereo, in
the interior city of Aguadulce, was sabotaged, resulting in
$25,000 damage. Similarly, on March 25, dynamite was
discovered wired to the transmission tower of opposition Radio
Helen in Santiago, Veraguas. On May 3, Christian Democratic
(PDC) legislator and radio commentator Carlos Arellano Lennox
suffered facial burns when an unknown assailant threw a caustic
substance at him. On June 29, an automobile belonging to
Emilio de Leon, legal advisor for Extra and leader of the
opposition Molirena Party, was firebombed and destroyed.
The three newspapers of the ERSA group are responsive to
directives from the Government. Absent guidance, however,
individual columnists write freely about a wide range of
topics. The Inter-American Press Association recently
reissued its call for the return of the ERSA papers to their
previous owners. These papers were expropriated by the PDF
following the 1968 military coup that brought the late General
Omar Torrijos to power.
There is no academic censorship and no censorship of foreign
newspapers, magazines, books, or cable television programing.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Constitution guarantees the right of peaceful assembly.
Twenty-four hours advance notice, but not government
permission, is required for open-air meetings. Professional,
social, and political groups meet without interference.
The PDF did not interfere with the political events
commemorating Hugo Spadafora's death. The Spadafora family
organized a 300-kilometer march in March 1986, a June 23 rally
at the Attorney General's office to denounce PDF Commander
Noriega's alleged complicity in the murder, and a memorial
mass on September 13.
Panama's organized labor movement is small but well
established. Both the Constitution and the labor code
guarantee fundamental worker rights, and workers enjoy a wide
range of benefits under the law. The rights to establish
unions, to bargain collectively, and to strike are generally
unrestricted in the private sector as well as in certain
public sector agencies specified by law. According to Labor
Ministry statistics, about 17 percent of the employed work
force belong to unions. In March 1986, the umbrella National
Council of Organized Workers (CONATO) carried out a 10-day
general strike protesting the government's reform of the labor
code. The Government declared the strike illegal but took no
punitive action against the protesters. Some labor
organizations later charged that workers at several enterprises
were dismissed for having absented themselves from their jobs
to participate in the protest. Most public sector employees
are not permitted to form unions or to strike, but they may
establish representative associations and have access to
government dispute resolution procedures. In practice, the
Government has frequently shown tolerance toward illegal work
stoppages at public institutions. A source of concern among
democratic labor leaders is the limitation placed on the right
of employees in the Colon Free Zone and the offshore banking
sector to organize unions.
Elections within Panamanian labor organizations, as well as
employer and professional associations, are generally
democratic and free from government interference. These
organizations are unrestricted in their right to affiliate to
international bodies, and their members may freely participate
in political parties and other aspects of Panamanian political
life, although many employees are allegedly forced to join
their employers' political party. The Government periodically
consults with organized labor and employer groups on a range
of public policy issues, and both sectors are entitled by
statute to representation on important government boards, such
as those governing the Social Security Fund and the Vocational
Training Institute, and on mediation-conciliation panels.
Because of political differences between the labor sector and
the Government over reform of the labor code, CONATO refused
to exercise its legal prerogative to designate Panama's worker
delegate to the International Labor Organization (ILO)
conference in June 1986; it nonetheless filed a complaint with
the ILO challenging the Labor Ministry's subsequent invitation
to an independent labor group to name the worker delegate.
The ILO credentials committee rejected the CONATO complaint.
During the March demonstrations and strikes protesting the
Legislative Assembly's reform of the labor code, the riot
police shot and killed a young man mistaken for a looter.
Several of the protesting workers' groups cited this death as
a manifestation of PDF violence against the strikers. The
young man's quick burial was criticized as a PDF attempt to
prevent large gatherings at his funeral.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution guarantees religious freedom to all; there is
no state religion. There are no restrictions on the free
exercise of religious beliefs, including proselytizing, and a
broad range of religious groups operates freely in Panama.
Religious beliefs are not an issue for any of the national
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign
Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The Constitution permits Panamanians to move freely within the
country and to emigrate, and these rights are honored in
practice. It also prohibits compulsory exile and extradition
of Panamanian nationals. Some persons exiled by previous
regimes have returned and resumed full participation in
Panamanian society. Exiles choosing to remain abroad have
been officially urged to return to Panama.
Panama has accepted refugees of widely differing ideological
persuasions, and hundreds of displaced persons and exiles from
other countries reside in Panama. Several hundred Salvadorans
originally sponsored by the Government of Panama are now
supporting themselves in a resettlement village. Several
thousand Cubans are in Panama awaiting immigration to the
United States; there has been an increase in the number of
Nicaraguans entering Panama as well. No cases of forcible
repatriation of political exiles occurred in 1986.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
The 1984 general elections, the first direct presidential and
legislative elections in 16 years, constitute a continuing
source of friction between the Government and the political
opposition. It is widely accepted that the PDF engineered the
current Government's election victory by tampering with the
vote count. The next general elections are scheduled for 1989.
The PDF remained the dominant political force in the country.
There have been numerous allegations that it controls the
governing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and interferes
in the legislative process. There is strong evidence that the
PDF played the dominant role within the PRD in the selection
of the 1986-87 president of the Legislative Assembly. The
PRD by itself has an absolute majority (34 of 67) in the
Legislative Assembly; together with allied parties it controls
about two-thirds of the votes in that body.
Both progovernment and opposition legislators speak on the
assembly floor. However, the opposition has charged that the
PRD frequently manipulates debate so as to limit time available
to the opposition. To express dissent, opposition legislators
have absented themselves from the Assembly during key votes.
Their views are fully reported in the opposition press;
opinions of the governing coalition parties are carried in the
ERSA press .
Both the Government and opposition media have reported that
many government employees are forced to join the political
party of the individual who heads the agency in which they
work or face dismissal . There have also been frequent and
credible charges that government employees are pressured by
their supervisors to take part in official demonstrations.
Minority groups, including women, blacks and Indians, are
represented in the Legislative Assembly, and participate in
the political process.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations
of Human Rights
The Government has espoused human rights causes in the
Organization of American States, the United Nations, and
elsewhere. A private human rights committee, formed in Panama
in 1978, continued to operate freely in 1986 and expressed
concern over local political and human rights. Articles and
editorials critical of the PDF ' s record on human rights,
listing specific violations, appear frequently in the
opposition press, many signed by members of the committee.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,
Language, or Social Status
The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of
race, birth out of wedlock, social class, sex, religion, or
political views. Women are accorded equal political rights
under Panamanian law and hold a number of important positions.
The 67 members of the Legislative Assembly include 4 women,
one of whom was elected to serve as First Vice President for
the 1986-87 legislative session. Of the 134 alternate
legislators, 23 are women. Four independent agency directors
are women. Women also serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court, one of the three members of the Electoral Tribunal, and
Director of the El Renacer Rehabilitation Center. Several
women's organizations, such as UNIDAD and Accion Feminina, are
active in Panamanian politics.
However, Panamanian women do not have the same opportunities
for advancement as do men. This reflects both traditional
bias and the current difficult economic climate. Because
Panamanian law does not recognize community property, divorced
or deserted women have been left destitute.
Female employment in urban Panama is concentrated in the
service sector, where wages are lower. Although the
Constitution mandates equal pay for equal work, wages paid to
women are lower than those for equivalent work performed by
males and increase at a slower rate. Comparatively fewer
women than men participate in the labor force, and their
participation seems to fluctuate as the job market expands and
contracts. Government statistics showed that in 1980 women
made up about 27 percent of the economically active work
force, a slight decline from 1978. According to the 1980
census, women slightly outnumber men in the professional and
technical fields, are twice as likely as men to be clerical
office workers, and are grossly underrepresented at the
managerial and administrative levels. Particularly in the
poorer areas, many women are heads of households obligated to
work for the government, usually as street cleaners, in order
to receive government support funds. The labor code gives
pregnant employees 12 weeks mandatory maternity leave and the
right to return to their jobs.
Panama is a racially mixed country. The traditional monopoly
of power by persons of European descent was effectively ended
with the ouster of the civilian president by the National Guard
in 1968. Blacks, Asians, and persons of mixed race are now
active politically and are represented at senior levels of
government, the Panama Defense Forces, and in the legislature,
where there are also five Indians.
Prominent among the minorities which retain some degree of
separate identity are English-speaking Jews, Arabs, Greeks,
Chinese, East Indians, and North Americans. All of these
groups play roles in Panama's urban economy well out of
proportion to their numbers. There is no discrimination in
law against these or any other social, religious, or cultural
groups; however, naturalized citizens are forbidden to hold
certain categories of elected office, and retail trade is
constitutionally restricted to native Panamanians. While
innumerable exceptions exist, Caucasians, Asians, and persons
of mixed race tend to be better off economically and to occupy
higher positions in government than Blacks and Indians;
however, the latter groups participate fully in both the
public and private sectors. Indian tribes receive government
assistance, particularly in the areas of public health and
welfare and education. They are not restricted to their
tribal areas, but most remain there by choice, reflecting
long-standing resistance to assimilation. Indians enjoy full
voting rights and all other rights of Panamanian citizenship,
as well as limited self-government in tribal areas. They play
significant roles in the governments of four provinces. The
Vice Minister of Government and Justice, who controls Indian
Affairs, is a Kuna Indian.
CONDITIONS OF LABOR
Panama has a comprehensive labor code which gives extensive
rights and benefits to workers. The maximum work week is 48
hours, and the law establishes a minimum, wage for most worker
categories and requires substantial bonuses to be paid for
overtime. Although the 1986 labor code reforms released
employers from the obligation to pay certain bonuses and
overtime premiums, employers continue to be legally required
to provide workers with compensation adequate for a decent
life. Labor is prohibited for children under age 14, or under
age 15 if the child has not completed primary school.
Hazardous and night work is prohibited for persons under
age 18. Children between ages 12 and 14 may perform farm or
domestic labor as long as the work is light and does not
interfere with schooling. In addition, the labor code details
numerous health and safety standards for all places of
employment. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare is
responsible for ensuring compliance with these regulations,
but limited resources hamper strict enforcement of some labor