The State Department web site below is a permanent electronic archive of information released prior to January 20, 2001.  Please see www.state.gov for material released since President George W. Bush took office on that date.  This site is not updated so external links may no longer function.  Contact us with any questions about finding information.

NOTE: External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views contained therein.

Department Seal

flag
bar

Title:  Panama Human Rights Practices, 1995 
Author:  U.S. Department of State  
Date:  March 1996  
 
 
 
 
                                    PANAMA 
 
 
Panama is a representative democracy with an elected executive composed 
of a president and two vice presidents, an elected 72-member 
legislature, and an appointed judiciary.  President Ernesto Perez 
Balladares, elected in May 1994 at the head of a multiparty coalition, 
is Panama's chief executive. 
 
Panama has had no military forces since 1989.  The Legislative Assembly 
amended the Constitution in 1994 to abolish a standing military.  The 
amendment contains a provision for forming a "temporary" force under 
certain national security circumstances.  The Panamanian National Police 
(PNP), under the Ministry of Government and Justice, are responsible for 
law enforcement.  The Judicial Technical Police (PTJ), under the Public 
Ministry, perform criminal investigations.  Credible reports of 
corruption at many levels of both police forces contributed to some 
police dismissals.  Both police forces are responsive to civilian 
authority and are headed by appointed civilian directors. 
 
The service-oriented economy uses the U.S. dollar as currency although 
it is called the Balboa.  The gross domestic product grew an estimated 
2.3 percent in 1995, less than in recent years, but still the sixth 
consecutive year of growth.  Poverty is pervasive with great and 
increasing income disparities between rich and poor and with continued 
high unemployment and underemployment, which together may affect 50 
percent of the population. 
 
Principal human rights abuses continued to be prolonged pretrial 
detention; an inefficient and often corrupt criminal justice system, 
undermined by low wages, poor working conditions, and in part by 
international narcotics traffickers; and overcrowded, decrepit prisons.  
The Government's assignment of a former human rights offender and 
intelligence official under ex-dictator General Noriega as deputy 
director of a major prison further undermined public faith in the prison 
system's humane treatment of prisoners and detainees.  Although the 
police generally performed in a professional and restrained manner, 
several cases involving excessive use of force occurred in May, June, 
and July.  Violence against women remained a serious problem compounded 
by society's unwillingness to recognize it. 
 
The Government continued to prosecute some persons responsible for 
abuses committed during the 21 years of dictatorship from 1968 to 1989.  
Few of these 1995 prosecutions resulted in convictions.  Several notable 
homicide cases ended in acquittals, leading many to criticize the jury 
trial system and question the Government's ability to deliver justice 
for past human rights violations.  In September the first Vice 
President, acting in his legal capacity as President while Perez 
Balladares was on an overseas tour, pardoned 139 citizens, some of whom 
had committed common crimes during the Noriega era. 
 
In August the Legislature enacted several revisions to the Labor Code in 
an effort to make the generally labor-favorable legal system more 
neutral.  Moderate labor organizations influenced the revisions through 
negotiations.  Just prior to the new law's passage, militant labor 
groups organized a major strike that turned violent but was eventually 
resolved. 
 
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS 
 
Section 1   Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom 
from: 
 
   a.   Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing 
 
There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.  One 
labor union claims that police used excessive force and killed one 
demonstrator during the violence that accompanied the August labor 
strike.  The Government denies the charge and there is no credible 
evidence that this death, or any of the other three strike-related 
deaths, could be attributed to police action. 
 
A presidential decree regulates the use of force by members of law 
enforcement organizations.  For the first time since the PTJ was created 
in 1990, the Government tried a PTJ agent for the use of deadly force in 
a 1992 shooting incident.  In July a jury found the officer not guilty. 
 
The Attorney General's Office ordered the prosecution of a police 
sergeant for the March 1994 lethal use of force against 22-year-old Jose 
Ayala Ibarra.  The former sergeant remained in pretrial detention. 
 
In July two officers killed a fellow off-duty police officer when they 
encountered him in a bar and tried to detain him after accusing him of 
being "impertinent" to them.  He resisted and, during the ensuing melee, 
shot one of the two arresting officers before being mortally wounded 
himself.  As of late December, the police were still investigating the 
incident. 
 
   b.   Disappearance 
 
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. 
 
   c.   Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or 
Punishment 
 
The Constitution prohibits use of measures which could damage the 
physical, mental, or moral integrity of prisoners or detainees.  In 
April police arrested four members of the special police investigations 
unit after fellow police members caught them robbing two tourists.  They 
later arrested several Customs officials for conspiracy in connection 
with the case  after determining these Customs officials had informed 
the special-investigations members of the large amount of cash the two 
tourists had declared upon arrival at Panama City's international 
airport. 
 
The PTJ and the PNP have offices of professional responsibility that act 
as internal affairs organs to hold officers accountable for their 
actions.  Both have staffs of independent investigators and 
administrative authority to open internal investigations which, upon 
completion, go to their respective inspectors general for submission to 
review boards.  The review boards, in turn, recommend to the service's 
director the appropriate action; the service director has the final 
authority to determine the disposition of each case.  Penalties may 
include reduction in rank, dismissal, and, in severe cases, criminal 
prosecution.  The PTJ investigated 110 cases of all categories of 
misconduct; since September 1994 it dismissed approximately 200 
officials for their actions and forwarded 13 cases for possible 
prosecution in the courts.  Similarly, the PNP investigated over 400 of 
the more than 600 cases of all categories of misconduct opened from 
January to November.  Since August 1994 the PNP forwarded five cases to 
the courts for possible action.  Allegations of misconduct are confirmed 
in 65 percent of the cases investigated. 
 
Although the police generally performed in a professional and restrained 
manner, several cases involving excessive use of force occurred in May, 
June, and July, chiefly because of poor officer leadership and faulty 
civilian oversight.  In September the PTJ suspended three detectives for 
having physically abused a detainee.  Prosecution of the three was 
pending while PTJ authorities investigate the case.  Anecdotal evidence 
suggests police still use physical violence to control detainees, 
particularly during initial arrest, interrogation, and holding phases.  
The Police Commissioner publicly apologized for police misconduct at a 
July Legislative Assembly hearing.  He vowed to redouble efforts to 
"cleanse the police of corrupt officials." 
 
Prison conditions throughout the country remain deplorable and a threat 
to prisoners' health.  Most prisons were built in the 1950's or before 
and are dilapidated; medical care is inadequate; and escape attempts are 
frequent.  There were credible reports of corruption and abuse of 
prisoners by guards.  The National Corrections Department (DNC) has 
authority to discipline prison guards with either penal or civil 
sanctions, depending on the severity of the abuse.  In practice, 
however, few prisoners or detainees have sought redress for alleged 
abuse by prison guards. 
 
In April the prison system conducted its first prison census since the 
1930's.  In Modelo prison alone the Government discovered it was 
detaining or holding as sentenced prisoners 135 more inmates than its 
records had indicated.  The  Government admitted that it did not know 
the corresponding judicial status of its inmates and detainees.  The 
census also revealed that because of nonexistent internal controls, as 
many as 10 inmates had hired other inmates approaching release to assume 
their identities and complete their remaining sentences. 
 
The census revealed that Modelo and Colon Prisons had prison populations 
more than three times their designed capacities.  Conditions in Modelo 
are reportedly so overcrowded that prisoners have to sling their 
hammocks up in the bathrooms, and in the main gallery hammocks are 
stacked five high.  Panama's bishops issued a communique recommending 
the closing of Modelo prison which they termed "medieval" and 
recommended expediting the trial process. 
 
As of November, the 1,000-bed La Joya facility, which still lacks 
furniture, sufficient potable water, and a trained administrative staff, 
housed approximately 788 inmates and detainees.  Prisoners were 
transferred gradually from Modelo to La Joya.  The assignment in January 
of former 1970's human rights violator and Noriega-era intelligence 
official Fitz Gibson as deputy director of La Joya was a setback.  
However, Gibson was on extended leave at the end of the year and there 
were indications he would not return to any position in the Department 
of Corrections. 
 
New legislation aimed at relieving overcrowding by speeding the pace of 
prosecution went into effect on July 1, but at year's end resulted in no 
appreciable improvement in either case processing or prison 
overcrowding.  A new case tracking system has, however, shown a decrease 
in case delays in the courts and with the prosecutors in the Public 
Ministry. 
 
With the exception of the small civil corrections staff at La Joya 
prison, the DNC depends on PNP personnel, who are not properly trained, 
to supply its guard force.  Although the guard response to the riots at 
Modelo prison in 1995 was generally restrained and appropriate, in some 
cases guards used excessive force and random, close-quarters employment 
of tear gas against inmates.  The first class of approximately 140 
corrections officers is undergoing training at the PNP Police Academy. 
 
Conditions on Coiba Island Penal Colony continued to be deplorable.  
Approximately 70 percent of the 277 prisoners await trial, and from all 
accounts the majority will have served almost two-thirds of their 
potential sentences before reaching trial.  Prisoners and detainees 
reportedly suffer greatly from malnutrition and shortages of potable 
water, and medical care is practically nonexistent.  Coiba has a 
civilian administrator, but its guard force still consists of police 
guards instead of civilian correctional officers.  Geographic isolation, 
plus lack of communications, has separated detainees  from their 
attorneys and caused many to miss trials.  Escapes from Coiba are 
common.  The Government did not send any new prisoners to Coiba as a 
preliminary step to closing it. 
 
Conditions at women's prisons were somewhat better.  In 1995 the 
Government closed the isolation cells formerly used for punishment and 
expanded the trades-based rehabilitation program.  Still, there were 
credible allegations that guards and staff at the Women's Rehabilitation 
Center (CFR) sexually abused female detainees and convicts.  Female 
prisoners, especially those in the primary detention area, reportedly 
suffered from overcrowding and poor medical care.  The Government took 
no action to investigate these allegations.  There was also no progress 
in the prosecution of the former CFR director, due to a lack of 
evidence. 
 
   d.   Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile 
 
The Constitution stipulates that arrests must be carried out with a 
warrant issued by the relevant authorities, except when the officer 
apprehends a person during the commission of a crime.  The law requires 
the arresting officer to inform the detainee immediately of the reasons 
for arrest or detention and of the right to immediate legal counsel, to 
be provided by the State for the indigent. 
 
In response to the outbreak of violence during the August strikes, the 
Government arrested and imprisoned hundreds of strikers based on hasty, 
quasi-trial judicial procedures administered by local misdemeanor judges 
(corregidors) and without adequate defense representation.  Authorities 
released all the detainees after 5 days, except for a handful who were 
held pending charges.  These were extraordinary measures to deal with an 
extraordinary situation, but the Government clearly violated the 
detainees' rights to due process in an effort to project a tough stance 
in the confrontation. 
 
The Constitution also provides for judicial review of the legality of 
detention and mandates the immediate release of any person detained or 
arrested illegally.  The law prohibits police from detaining suspects 
for more than 24 hours without bringing them before a competent 
authority.  In practice, the authorities often violated the 24-hour time 
limit by several days.  The preliminary investigation phase often lasts 
from 2 to 4 months, due to extensions granted by the Public Ministry and 
additional communications with the court.  While the Public Ministry can 
legally grant extensions up to 14 months in most cases, it often allows 
case processing to exceed the approved extensions, leaving the accused 
incommunicado in detention.  Insufficient resources, and a slow, 
inadequate notification phase exacerbate the problem. 
 
Extended pretrial detention continued to be one of Panama's most serious 
human rights problems, although the percentage of defendants detained 
past legally required trial deadlines decreased from 1994.  The 
elaborate notification phase in criminal cases continues to be one of 
the chief factors contributing to long case delays.  According to 
government statistics, pretrial detainees composed approximately 78 
percent of the prison population.  Almost 25 percent of the total prison 
population is under detention beyond legally permissible time limits.  
According to public defenders, the average period of pretrial custody 
for a defendant was approximately 16 months; pretrial detention in 
excess of the maximum sentence for the alleged crime was common.  A 
legal mechanism exists to hold the Government accountable in cases where 
a detainee spends a significant amount of time incarcerated only to be 
found not guilty.  Although the redress procedure is not excessively 
complicated, few former detainees have sought redress for their time in 
detention. 
 
The Constitution prohibits exile, and there were no reports of forced 
exile. 
 
   e.   Denial of Fair Public Trial 
 
The President appoints nine Supreme Court magistrates to 10-year terms, 
subject to Legislative Assembly confirmation.  The Supreme Court 
magistrates appoint appellate (superior) court judges, who, in turn, 
appoint circuit and municipal court judges in their respective 
jurisdictions.  The Attorney General, who heads the Public Ministry 
jointly with the Solicitor General, appoints the superior and circuit 
level prosecutors. 
 
At the local level, mayors appoint administrative judges who exercise 
jurisdiction over minor civil and criminal cases in which they may 
impose fines or sentences of up to 1 year.  This system has serious 
shortcomings.  For example, defendants lack adequate procedural 
safeguards, the officials need not be (and normally are not) attorneys, 
and some engage in corrupt practices.  In reality, appeal procedures are 
nonexistent.  More affluent defendants tend to pay fines while poorer 
defendants go to jail, one of the chief factors leading to current 
prison overcrowding. 
 
The Constitution provides that persons charged with crimes have the 
right to counsel and are presumed innocent until proven guilty.  If not 
under pretrial detention, the accused may be present with counsel during 
the investigative phase of the proceeding.  Judges can order the 
presence of pretrial detainees for the rendering of statements, 
amplifications, or confrontation of witnesses.  Trial proceedings are 
conducted orally with the accused present.  The Constitution establishes 
trial by jury in some circumstances, primarily in capital and  serious 
felony cases; by law, however, jury trials are not an option in most 
cases. 
 
The Constitution obliges the Government to provide public defenders for 
the indigent.  Although many public defenders are still not appointed 
until after the investigative phase of the case, many more public 
defenders than in past years were assigned to cases prior to 
commencement of the investigative phase, increasing the defense's 
opportunity to present evidence.  Public defenders' caseloads remained 
staggering, numbering hundreds of cases per attorney and seriously 
undermining the quality of representation.  At the same time, reliable 
reports suggest an increased number of acquittals as a result of the 
work of public defenders. 
 
Trial activity was not only hampered by budgetary shortfalls, the 
judicial system was also undercut by narcotics related judicial 
corruption.  In July the Attorney General dismissed a judge because of 
her alleged improper return of seized funds to a Colombian narcotics 
trafficker.  The Attorney General is also investigating other judicial 
branch and Justice Ministry officials on similar grounds. 
 
The judicial system continued to prosecute those responsible for human 
rights and other abuses committed during the Noriega period.  The 
Government brought to trial, convicted, or sentenced several notorious 
defendants, but juries found most not guilty.  For example, despite 
eyewitnesses, convincing autopsy reports, and video footage of the 
attack, in March a jury found Noriega-era, ex-military sergeant, 
Oliverio "Gonzalito" Gonzalez, not guilty in the 1989 street killing of 
a prominent opposition leader's bodyguard.  In July a jury found Manuel 
Antonio Noriega and three of six codefendants innocent of murder in the 
infamous 1989 Albrook Massacre case (during which a number of officers 
and enlisted men were summarily executed without trial for attempting to 
overthrow the dictator), choosing to find guilty of murder only those 
three defendants tried in absentia.  This surprising outcome, coupled 
with the earlier public disappointment from the not guilty verdict in 
the March "Gonzalito" case, prompted high-level government leaders, 
including the Attorney General and the Supreme Court Chief Magistrate, 
to join public calls for jury trial reform. 
 
There were no reports of political prisoners, although acting President 
Thomas Gabriel Altamirano Duque issued 139 pardons in September claiming 
that some of the individuals pardoned were political detainees.  
Included in the list of 139 was Marcos Justine, who had served under 
Noriega as the last Chief of Staff of the Panama Defense Forces, and was 
accused of grand embezzlement. 
 
    f.   Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or 
Correspondence 
 
The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and 
communications.  The authorities may not examine personal documents, 
monitor communications, or enter and search private residences except by 
written order.  However, there were credible complaints that the police 
failed to follow legal requirements for arrest and search warrants and 
instead conducted indiscriminate searches of entire apartment buildings 
or housing complexes.  Police involvement in crime rings also blurred 
distinctions between improper searches and attempted theft. 
 
Despite the view of some that the Constitution prohibits all 
wiretapping, the Government maintains that wiretapping with judicial 
branch approval is legal.  Under the guidelines established by new 
antinarcotics legislation passed in July 1994, the Public Ministry may 
engage in undercover operations, including "videotaping and recording of 
conversations."  The Supreme Court will ultimately have to decide 
whether wiretapping is constitutional and, if so, under what 
circumstances. 
 
Section 2   Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: 
 
   a.   Freedom of Speech and Press 
 
The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and press and the 
Government generally respects these rights in practice.  Five national 
daily newspapers, 3 commercial television stations, 2 educational 
television stations, and over 95 radio stations provide a broad choice 
of informational sources; all are privately or institutionally owned.  
While many media outlets took identifiable editorial positions, the 
media carried a wide variety of political commentaries and other 
perspectives, both local and foreign.  Panamanian and foreign 
journalists worked and traveled freely throughout the country, and the 
population had access to foreign media. 
 
There were a few cases of government harassment of journalists, such as 
barring individual journalists from covering government events and 
pressure on the management of certain television stations to modify 
their programming.  The Government has legal authority to place both 
direct and indirect restrictions on the media, and use of informal 
pressure on the media was common.  Most media censor themselves, a 
practice deeply ingrained in a close-knit society, whose leadership is 
built on interlocking family, marital, and commercial ties. 
 
The Government stopped advertising in La Estrella de Panama newspaper in 
May shortly before First Vice President Tomas Altamirano Duque was 
replaced as director of the daily.  According to management of La 
Estrella, this put the newspaper  in financial difficulty.  During its 
assembly in October, the Inter-American Press Society (SIP) accused the 
Government of violating the liberty of the press and practicing economic 
harassment against La Estrella.  An SIP delegation visited Panama in 
mid-December to urge fair treatment; the delegation was received by the 
President who restated government commitment to freedom of the press.  
The President filed a libel suit in November against La Estrella in 
response to an editorial which was mildly critical of the Government, 
but dropped the suit a few weeks later. 
 
A special executive branch authority has discretionary powers to 
administer the libel laws which provide for fines and up to 2 years in 
prison.  Opinions, comments, or criticism of government officials acting 
in their official capacity are specifically exempted from libel 
prosecution, but a section of the law allows for the immediate 
discipline of journalists who show "disrespect" for the office of 
certain government officials.  While this section of the law was not 
used during the year, its existence inhibits some writers' self-
expression. 
 
Current press laws allow for the establishment of a censorship board.  
There were no reports of the board taking any restrictive actions in 
1995. 
 
The law provides for academic freedom, which was freely exercised in 
both public and private universities. 
 
   b.   Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association 
 
The Constitution provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and 
association, and the Government generally respects these rights.  No 
authorization is needed for outdoor assembly, although prior 
notification for administrative purposes is required.  Citizens have the 
right to form associations and professional or civic groups without 
government interference.  They may form and organize political parties 
as they like, though parties must meet membership and organizational 
standards in order to gain official recognition and participate in 
national campaigns. 
 
During August trade unions and other citizens gathered and marched to 
protest proposed labor reforms.  There were no reported instances of 
inappropriate government action against such marches.  Police arrests 
and efforts to disperse marching strikers generally were limited to 
instances in which strikers sought to close roads and attacked 
monitoring police units with rocks and Molotov cocktails. 
 
   c.   Freedom of Religion 
 
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government 
respects this right in practice.  Clerics are  constitutionally 
prohibited from holding public office, except as related to social 
assistance, education, or scientific research. 
 
   d.   Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, 
Emigration, and Repatriation 
 
The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects 
them in practice.  A 9 p.m. curfew for minors under 18 years of age in 
Panama province, imposed in 1992, remained in effect although police 
enforced it unevenly, mainly in high-crime areas.  There were no cases 
of forcible repatriation of refugees or asylees. 
 
Section 3   Respect for Political Rights:  The Right of Citizens to 
Change Their Government 
 
The Constitution provides for a representative democracy with direct 
popular election by secret ballot of the President, two Vice Presidents, 
legislators, and local representatives every 5 years.  The independent 
National Electoral Tribunal arranges and supervises elections.  The 
Government respected the rights of its citizens to join any political 
party, propagate their views, and vote for candidates of their choice. 
 
There are no legal barriers to participation by women or people of 
African, Asian, or indigenous descent, but in fact their presence in 
senior leadership positions in government or political parties is not 
proportionate to their numbers within society.  However, representatives 
of these groups are increasingly visible in midlevel political and 
governmental positions.  In 1994 a woman ran for President and finished 
second with over 28 percent of the vote.  The Legislative Assembly's 
1994-95 president was a woman; the Panama provincial Governor and Panama 
City's mayor are both women.  Women hold 5 of 72 Legislative Assembly 
seats and 3 of 11 Cabinet positions. 
 
The Government provides semiautonomous status to several indigenous 
groups in their homelands, including the San Blas, Madugandi, and Darien 
Embera-Wounaan reserves.  The San Blas groups have two representatives 
in the Legislative Assembly, proportionate to their share of the 
population.  Locally, the reserve is governed by tribal chiefs, who meet 
in a general congress twice a year.  Neither the Madugandi nor the 
Embera-Wounaan reserve has its own dedicated legislators, but each has a 
separate Governor. 
 
Section 4   Governmental Attitude Regarding International and 
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights 
 
Human rights organizations, including both religious and secular groups, 
generally operated without governmental  restrictions.  These 
organizations carried out a full range of activities, including 
investigations and dissemination of their findings.  Human rights 
advocates generally had free access to government officials while 
investigating complaints.  A U.N. team investigating housing 
displacement traveled freely throughout Panama. 
 
Section 5   Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, 
Language, or Social Status 
 
The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, birth 
status, social class, sex, religion, or political views.  Nevertheless, 
Panamanian society, particularly its upper class, still harbors many 
prejudices based primarily on race, sex, and social status. 
 
   Women 
 
Domestic violence against women continued to be a serious problem.  In 
January local justices in San Miguelito, a densely populated suburb of 
Panama City, estimated that they process almost 30 domestic violence 
cases a day; formal statistics indicated that they judged 517 domestic 
violence cases during a 2-month period in 1994.  These statistics 
probably underestimate the problem.  A late-1993 report by the reputable 
Center for the Development of the Woman estimated that victims report as 
few as 20 percent of sexual assaults to judicial or law enforcement 
authorities.  The Foundation for the Promotion of the Woman, among other 
women's advocacy groups and government agencies, operated programs to 
assist victims of such abuse.  The Government ratified the Inter-
American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of 
Violence against Women in July. 
 
Women generally do not enjoy the same economic opportunities as men.  
Until 1995, the law did not recognize property in common, and divorced 
or deserted women are often left destitute.  The new Family Code 
promulgated in April recognizes for the first time joint or common 
property in marriages.  However, the Government has not committed 
sufficient funding to provide enough judges and administrative resources 
to enforce the new Code's provisions. 
 
The Constitution mandates equal pay for equal work, but wages paid to 
women are often lower than those for equivalent work performed by men 
and increase at a slower rate.  A 1994 U.N. report noted that women 
occupy only 4 percent of the managerial positions in Panama.  Although 
statistics are lacking, there are credible reports of sexual harassment, 
firings for pregnancy, and hiring practices based on age and 
"attractiveness." 
 
A number of private women's rights groups, including groups for 
indigenous women, concentrate on disseminating information about women's 
rights, countering domestic abuse, enhancing employment and other 
skills, and pressing for legal reforms.  Indigenous women vocally 
criticized male government administrators and politicians for 
overlooking indigenous women's rights. 
 
In May the Perez Balladares Administration created a National Council of 
the Woman to administer an Executive Office of Women's Affairs in the 
Labor and Social Welfare Ministry.  It is unclear whether this new 
office will subsume the Women's Department created in July 1993 by the 
Labor and Social Welfare Ministry.  The Government gave that office 
little funding, and it has been relatively ineffective. 
 
In addition to domestic violence, sexual harassment is a serious threat 
to the equal status of women in Panamanian society.  A reliable report 
from the Latin-American Committee for the Defense of Women revealed in 
1995 that up to 70 percent of female government employees had been 
sexually harassed in the workplace; 42 percent by their immediate 
supervisors and 18 percent by even more senior supervisors.  In March 
the Legislative Assembly failed to approve a sexual harassment bill that 
would "prevent, prohibit, penalize, and eradicate sexual harassment in 
the workplace and educational sector."  Officials relieved several 
academics and administrators of their positions at the University of 
Panama for sexual harassment. 
 
   Children 
 
The Tutelar de Menores, a juvenile authority with additional 
administrative roles, plays a role in the protection and care of minors, 
but the Government has no specific office charged with protecting 
children's rights.  A women's advocacy group reported in 1994 that 72 
percent of children are born from nonstable, short-term relationships.  
Many children suffer from malnutrition, neglect, and inadequate medical 
care.  Juvenile courts report a high incidence of juvenile delinquency 
in major urban areas.  The new Family Code placed juvenile court 
authority, including rehabilitation programs, orphan care authority, and 
juvenile detention authority, under the Supreme Court.  It also 
clarified reporting authority and strengthened preventive protection 
powers in suspected juvenile-abuse cases.  While it also aimed to create 
a mechanism to record and report suspected domestic violence cases 
involving minors, budgetary shortfalls hampered the new bureaucracy's 
efforts to implement the reporting program. 
 
   People With Disabilities 
 
The Workers with Disabilities Office of the Department of Labor and 
Social Welfare is responsible for government policy and  support for 
citizens with disabilities and for placing qualified disabled workers 
with employers.  The office was in charge of implementing a June 1993 
executive order which provided employers with tax incentives for hiring 
people with disabilities but has had only minimal success.  Although 
some public buildings and retail stores have access ramps for disabled 
people, no law or regulation compels the installation of ramps or other 
easy-access features in public or private buildings.  It is not likely 
that the Government will fund construction or modification projects 
providing access for the disabled in a significant way, and members of 
this group will remain disadvantaged. 
 
   Indigenous People 
 
Indigenous people number approximately 194,000 (8 percent of the 
population) and theoretically have the same political and legal rights 
as other citizens.  The Constitution protects the ethnic identity and 
native languages of indigenous people, requiring the Government to 
provide bilingual literacy programs in indigenous communities.  
Indigenous people have legal rights and take part in decisions affecting 
their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation of natural 
resources.  The Family Code recognizes traditional indigenous cultural 
marriage rites as the equivalent of a civil ceremony.  The Ministry of 
Government and Justice maintains a Directorate of Indigenous Policy.  
The Legislative Assembly also has an indigenous affairs commission to 
address charges that the Government has neglected indigenous needs. 
 
Despite legal protection and formal equality, indigenous people 
generally endure relatively higher levels of poverty, disease, 
malnutrition, and illiteracy than the rest of the population.  
Discrimination is widespread.  Since indigenous populations infrequently 
master Spanish well enough to use appropriate legal terminology, they 
often have difficulty understanding their rights under the Legal Code 
and defending themselves in court. 
 
Panama's indigenous population, particularly Ngobe-Bugle, has grown 
increasingly vocal in requesting that the Government grant them more 
autonomy by creating more indigenous reserves or expanding existing 
ones.  A general standoff has existed between Government and indigenous 
reserve status negotiators.  Ngobe-Bugle groups complained that private 
landholders restricted access to claimed tribal lands.  The Government 
supported the landholders' claims that legal leases were still in effect 
based on prior indigenous members' sales of the property to private 
individuals.  The Ngobe-Bugle perception that talks had stalemated led 
to a brief, yet nasty confrontation in Veraguas Province in April.  
Although the police used tear gas to disperse Ngobe-Bugle tribal members 
armed with machetes, they acted in a restrained fashion.   However, the 
Government's subsequent summary arrest and arbitrary transfer and 
detention of several tribal members, including a minor, raised questions 
of a lack of justice for marginalized social groups.  Indigenous leaders 
denounced the Government's treatment of the Ngobe-Bugle and raised the 
matter with the United Nations Indigenous Groups' Commission in Geneva.  
The Commission has yet to take action on the complaint. 
 
   National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities 
 
The law prohibits discrimination against any social, religious, or 
cultural group; however, naturalized citizens may not hold certain 
categories of elective office.  Anecdotal evidence indicates that a 
constitutional provision reserving retail trade to Panamanian citizens 
originally was directed at Chinese immigrants, but Government officials 
have stated that it serves as a barrier to keep foreign retail chains 
from operating in Panama.  The measure is not enforced in practice, 
however.  Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian residents, as well as 
Panamanians of Chinese and Indian descent, operate much of the retail 
trade, particularly in urban areas. 
 
Leaders of the over 100,000-member East Asian and South Asian 
communities credibly claimed that Panamanian elites treat Panamanian-
resident Chinese and Indians as well as Panamanian citizens of Asian 
origin as second-class citizens. 
 
Section 6   Worker Rights 
 
   a.   The Right of Association 
 
Private sector workers have the right to form and join unions of their 
choice, subject to registration by the Government.  A Labor Code reform 
package signed on August 14 significantly increased workers' ability to 
establish unions.  The reforms streamline the accreditation and 
registration process for unions, reduce the minimum size from 50 to 40 
workers and cut the Government's required response time on applications 
from 2 months to 15 days.  In the event the Government does not respond 
within this time frame, the union will automatically be recognized and 
accorded all rights and privileges under the law. 
 
Neither the Government nor the political parties control or financially 
support any unions.  This was demonstrated when virtually all unions 
struck--with the notable exception of the transportation workers--for at 
least a brief period against the Government's Labor Code reform 
proposals.  During debate on the Labor Code, militant labor unions took 
to the streets to agitate against its passage.  Confrontation ensued 
between the police and workers that resulted in numerous injuries to 
both sides and over 400 workers arrested.  Most of them were released 
after a few days. 
 
According to Ministry of Labor statistics, approximately 10 percent of 
the total employed labor force is organized.  There are 257 active 
unions, grouped under 6 confederations and 48 federations representing 
approximately 73,300 members in the private sector.  Union organizations 
at every level may and do affiliate with international bodies. 
 
The Civil Service Law of June 20, 1994, permits most government workers 
to form public employee associations and federations and establishes 
their right to represent members in collective bargaining with their 
respective agencies.  It also provides most workers with the right to 
strike, except for certain government workers in areas vital to public 
welfare and security, such as the police and health workers and those 
employed by the U.S. military forces and the Panama Canal Commission.  
Public sector workers are lobbying the Government to have their 
associations accorded formal "union" status. 
 
The new Labor Code addressed some longstanding concerns of the 
International Labor Organization (ILO).  The Code no longer makes labor 
leaders automatically ineligible to keep their union positions if they 
are fired from their jobs. 
 
There were many private sector strikes; the most significant by a 
coalition of 49 unions led by the construction workers and banana 
workers against the Government's labor reform proposals.  Most national 
confederations briefly joined this coalition to add pressure on the 
Government to adopt more labor-friendly legislation. 
 
   b.   The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively 
 
The Labor Code provides most workers with the right to organize and 
bargain collectively, and unions widely exercise it.  The law protects 
union workers from antiunion discrimination and requires employers to 
reinstate workers fired for union activities.  The Ministry of Labor has 
mechanisms to resolve complaints against antiunion employers.  The new 
Civil Service Law allows most public employees to organize and bargain 
collectively and grants them a limited right to strike.  The Labor Code 
establishes a conciliation board in the Ministry of Labor to resolve 
labor complaints and provides a procedure for arbitration. 
 
Employers commonly hire temporary workers to circumvent onerous labor 
code requirements for permanent workers; such temporary workers receive 
neither pensions nor other benefits.  The practice of blank contracts 
is, according to union sources, becoming more widespread.  The new labor 
legislation addresses this problem by requiring all companies to submit 
copies of all labor contracts for permanent workers to the Labor 
Ministry and by requiring the Labor Ministry to conduct periodic 
inspections of companies' work forces and review all contracts to ensure  
that they are in order.  The new Code also authorizes the Labor Ministry 
to levy fines against companies not in compliance with the law. 
 
Labor law applies equally to export processing zones. 
 
   c.   Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor 
 
The Labor Code prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and neither 
practice was reported. 
 
   d.   Minimum Age for Employment of Children 
 
The Labor Code prohibits the employment of children under 14 years of 
age as well as those under 15 if the child has not completed primary 
school; children under 16 cannot work overtime; those under 18 cannot 
perform night work.  Children between the ages of 12 and 15 may perform 
farm or domestic labor as long as the work is light and does not 
interfere with the child's schooling.  The Ministry of Labor enforces 
these provisions in response to complaints and may order the termination 
of unauthorized employment.  The Government has not enforced child labor 
provisions in rural areas, claiming insufficient staff.  Accord to a 
recent ILO report, 11,600 children between the ages of 10 and 14 are in 
the labor force--primarily in farm or domestic labor. 
 
   e.   Acceptable Conditions of Work 
 
The Labor Code establishes a standard work week of 48 hours and provides 
for at least one 24-hour rest period weekly.  It also establishes 
minimum-wage rates for specific regions and for most categories of 
labor.  The minimum wage, last increased in January 1993, is $1.00 per 
hour in the districts of Panama, Colon, and San Miguelito, and for 
workers in financial services.  It is not enough to support a family 
above the poverty level in the relatively high-cost economy.  Most  
workers formally employed in urban areas earn the minimum wage or above, 
but most workers in the large informal sector earn below the minimum 
wage.  Unions have repeatedly alleged that contractors operating in the 
Panama Canal area pay less than the required minimum wage.  The Ministry 
of Labor does not adequately enforce minimum wage law, due to 
insufficient personnel and financial resources. 
 
The Government sets and enforces occupational health and safety 
standards.  An occupational health section in the Social Security System 
is responsible for conducting periodic inspections of especially 
hazardous employment sites, such as those in the construction industry, 
as well as inspecting health and safety standards in response to union 
or worker requests.  The law protects from dismissal workers who file 
requests for health and safety inspections.  Workers also  have the 
right to remove themselves from situations that present an immediate 
health or safety hazard without jeopardizing their employment.  They are 
generally not allowed to do so if the threat is not immediate, but may 
request a health and safety inspection to determine the extent and 
nature of the hazard.  The Ministry of Labor is responsible for 
enforcing health and safety violations and generally does so.  The 
standards are fairly encompassing and generally emphasize safety over 
long-term health hazards, according to organized labor sources.  Health 
problems, however, continue in the banana industry as well as the cement 
and milling industries. 
 
(###)


[end of document]

flag
bar

Department Seal

Return to 1995 Human Rights Practices report home page.
Return to DOSFAN home page.
This is an official U.S. Government source for information on the WWW. Inclusion of non-U.S. Government links does not imply endorsement of contents.