(This report covers the period January-December 1997)

More than 300 Colombian refugees were forcibly returned. Ill-treatment by prison guards was reported and prison conditions were harsh.

Several hundred Colombian refugees fleeing persecution by Colombian paramilitary groups entered Panama in the Darién jungle region between March and April. Despite promises to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (unhcr) that they would not take immediate action, Panamanian authorities began the forcible return of more than 300 refugees in mid-April. In May the Panamanian Government accepted unhcr intervention in the crisis. After conducting visits to refugee communities, unhcr stated that the refugees' claims for asylum were fully justified.

In April more than 200 members of a Colombian paramilitary group crossed into Panama, reportedly attacking and killing at least four people, including Colombian refugees and Panamanian

nationals. In June and July paramilitaries again crossed over the border into Darién province and "disappearances" and further killings were reported.

Ill-treatment by prison guards was reported. In March Jorge Luis Alvarado Guerra died of a heart attack after being beaten by prison guards at the prison of Tinajitas, in San Miguelito, Panama Province. Three guards were detained and accused of causing his death. At the end of the year, legal proceedings against them were continuing. In July prisoners at Renacer Prison in Colón, 55 of whom were on hunger-strike, were reportedly tied up and beaten. Overcrowding in prisons became more severe after the closure of Modelo Prison, Panama City, in late 1996. In mid-September riots were reported at the prisons of La Joyita and La Joya, on the outskirts of Panama City, and hunger-strikes were reported at various prisons throughout the country in protest at deteriorating conditions. These included lack of medical treatment, insanitary conditions as well as ill-treatment by prison guards.

In June Amnesty International produced a report, Panama/Colombia: Refugees – the right to escape from death. The report focused on human rights violations against Colombians on both sides of the border fleeing escalating violence in the northwest of Colombia.

This 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.