Panama 2015/2016

Back to Panama

PANAMA 2015/2016

The trial of former President Manuel Noriega relating to the enforced disappearance in 1970 of Heliodoro Portugal was suspended. An Indigenous community held protests against a hydroelectricity project that they said had not received their free, prior and informed consent. Civil society organizations denounced poor conditions at a naval prison.


The Supreme Court approved new investigations against former President Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014) for corruption and the illegal wiretapping and electronic surveillance of political opponents, journalists, union leaders and other prominent members of society. Ricardo Martinelli, who left the country, denied the allegations against him and said he was the victim of political persecution.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights

In February, Panama’s National Environmental Authority temporarily suspended the construction of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam, which had been at the centre of a land dispute with the Ngöbe-Buglé Indigenous community, for failings in its environmental impact assessment. However, the government later said that construction of the nearly completed dam will continue. The Ngöbe-Buglé community had protested against the dam for several years, saying they were not properly consulted beforehand and that the dam will flood their land.


The trial of former President Manuel Noriega for the enforced disappearance of union leader and activist Heliodoro Portugal in 1970 was suspended shortly before it was due to begin in May. The suspension came after Manuel Noriega’s lawyer appealed, arguing that the trial would violate the terms of his extradition from France in 2011. It was unclear when the court would rule on the appeal or if the trial would proceed.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights had ruled in 2008 that Panama was responsible for Heliodoro Portugal’s enforced disappearance as well as the failure to investigate the crime. The Inter-American Court ruled that the government must carry out an effective investigation and ensure the perpetrators are punished, as well as make reparations to the family.

Although Panama ratified the International Convention against enforced disappearance in 2011, it had not recognized the competence of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances to receive and consider communications from or on behalf of victims or from other states parties.

In June, Ecuadoran national Jesús Vélez Loor travelled to Panama to appear before a prosecutor and answer questions about his detention and torture by Panamanian authorities between 2002 and 2003. The Inter-American Court held a hearing in February with representatives of the government to discuss Panama’s failure to fully comply with a 2010 judgment regarding his case, which ruled that Panama must investigate the human rights violations committed against him and improve treatment towards migrants.

Prison conditions

Local civil society organizations, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and the head of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called on the authorities to halt the transfer of prisoners to a maximum security prison located at the naval base on Punta Coco Island. The UN experts said the prison operated outside of the official penitentiary system, had unsanitary conditions, and prisoners were being moved there without proper notification to their lawyers and families. The director of the penitentiary system, Gabriel Pinzón, denied that the prisoners’ human rights were being violated but said the government would establish a sub-commission to investigate.