Panama must account for protest deaths in Colón

The deaths of three residents of the northern port city of Colón in recent protests against government plans to sell off state-owned land must be thoroughly investigated by the Panamanian authorities, Amnesty International said today. On Tuesday evening, a 27-year-old woman became the third to die in clashes as police attempted to quell protests by civil society groups and local residents against a new law that would lead to land in Colón’s Free-Trade Zone being sold to foreign business interests. Her death follows that of a local man and a 9-year-old boy during protests earlier in the week. Local residents have alleged the police used tear gas and fired live rounds to disperse protesters, while Panama’s National Police told media that several police officers had been injured by gunshots and missiles thrown by some of the protesters.“Once again, clashes erupting at a public protest in Panama have ended in tragedy for local residents, with the lives of a child and two adults cut short in Colón’s streets. The Panamanian authorities must carry out a full, independent investigation into these deaths and bring those responsible to justice,” said Sebastian Elgueta, Researcher on Panama at Amnesty International.“The authorities have a duty to ensure law and order. However, excessive force should only be used in accordance with international standards – that is, only as a last resort. We urge Panama to ensure that all members of the security forces receive adequate training in line with the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.”Following the latest death, Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli announced on Twitter on Tuesday night: “If the people of Colón don’t want the sale of lands in the Free-Trade Zone, the sale will be repealed.”  Amnesty International urges him to send a clear message that the use excessive force is not going to be tolerated. Excessive use of forceThe protest deaths in Colón are the latest in a string of incidents across Panama where police have been accused of using excessive force to disperse demonstrations over social conflicts. In February 2012, a man was allegedly shot dead by police responding to a protest by members of the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous people in San Felix in western Chiriquí province. In July 2010 in Bocas del Toro province in north-western Panama, an indigenous protest over an attempt to reform labour laws resulted in at least three protester deaths and hundreds of injuries when police fired rubber bullets at close range.  To date, Panama’s authorities have failed to follow through on pledges to investigate such incidents and bring those responsible to justice.