Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Panama

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Panama, 30 January 1996, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


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.


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.


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 struckÚÚwith the notable exception of the transportation workersÚÚfor 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 forceÚÚprimarily 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.

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