corruption as usual anymore.
The issue has
come to the point where Mireya Moscoso is publicly telling
members of the Supreme Court to shut up, a broad coalition of
decidedly unradical groups and individuals is demanding the
resignations of several high court magistrates and Attorney
General Sossa, most legislators are hiding out from the press
and public and Supreme Court president Adán Arnulfo
Arjona admits that a point of no return has been passed. The
phrase constitutional crisis is being uttered by
leaders of the legal profession and its hard to find
someone who argues otherwise.
The crisis came
by way of a Supreme Court decision quashing investigations into
alleged bribery to procure legislative approval of the CEMIS
container handling and airport expansion project and to get
President Moscosos nominations of Supreme Court
magistrates Alberto Cigarruista and Winston Spadafora and their
suplentes ratified. The scandal first erupted when two PRD
members and another minor party legislator who had been voting
with the PRD broke ranks and supported Moscosos nominees,
giving her the margin to ratify the nominations and effectively
take over both the Supreme Court and the Legislative Assembly.
On the assembly floor right after the vote, San Miguelito
legislator Balbina Herrera accused one of the renegades, Carlos
Afú, of accepting a $1.5 million bribe to approve the
presidents nominees. Afú then held a press
conference where he waved $6,000 in cash and said that it had
been delivered to him in a manila envelope as part of a massive
scheme to bribe the legislature to approve the CEMIS
investigation of both sets of charges was begun, at a time
between legislative sessions when the deputies immunity
from investigation and arrest didnt apply, but the probe
was suspended five days before the next regular Legislative
Assembly session began and thereafter Mireya Moscoso scheduled
a series of special sessions that maintained the
legislators immune status. (The Panamanian constitution
provides that legislators are immune during and five days
before and after assembly sessions, including both regular and
special sessions.) Herrera and number of other legislators
volunteered to set aside their immunity, but the now Arnulfista-
dominated assembly as a whole never acted to accept that and
finally passed a resolution purporting to order an end to the
criminal investigations against its members. Ultimately
Attorney General Sossa recommended that Afú be
prosecuted for admittedly taking a bribe and that the promoter
and former chief executive of CEMIS should face charges with
him, but Sossa turned the matter over to the Supreme Court for
The court, in a
6-3 decision in which the deciding votes were cast by the two
suplentes whose ratification was allegedly procured through
bribery, held that the corruption investigations were illegal
because they were unauthorized by the legislature.
One of the
dissenting magistrates, Supreme Court president Adán
Arnulfo Arjona, had warned his colleagues that the nation
will never be the same after the decision.
That turned out
to be one of the milder statement from the legal profession.
Two of Arjonas fellow dissenting magistrates, Arturo
Hoyos and Rogelio Fábrega Zarak, claimed that the ruling
allowed the legislature to usurp the courts powers.
Before an audience at the University of Panama, former high
court magistrate Edgardo Molino Mola called the decision
infernal and incredible. Former
President Guillermo Endara, a lawyer whos now seeking his
old office again in next Mays elections, vowed to seek a
way to reopen the case if he becomes president again.
Sossas suplente Mercédes Araúz de Grimaldo
pointed out that the decision contradicted the precedent of an
earlier decision by the same court and said that it called
Panamas democracy deeply into doubt.
At that, Arjona
cried foul, arguing that even though he opposed the ruling an
Attorney General or his or her alternate owes a duty to the
court not to question its decisions and characterized her
statement as inexcusable ignorance.
didnt stop the criticism. The nations bar
association, the Colegio de Abogados, called for a civic
audit of the case and requested to see the file. More
than a dozen business, labor, civic, religious and professional
organizations seconded the request.
October 10, Alberto Cigarruista called RPC-TVs
Debate Abierto morning talk show and blew
everything sky high. There were bribes paid, the high court
judge said, and he has known all along who had given the
money, whom had received it and who was passing it out.
He said that he had told Attorney General Sossa and Archbishop
Cedeño all about it long ago. Sossa was unavailable for
comment. Cedeño acknowledged such a conversation but
said that it was a confidential discussion between a cleric and
was the nearly universal cry from the legal profession. As with
attorney-client privilege, the privilege for communications
between priests and confessors is legally broken once one of
the parties has revealed any of its substance to the public.
There were multiple demands for criminal investigations filed
on the basis of Cigarruistas statements, and the Colegio
de Abogados went several steps further than they had a few days
This time, the
bar demanded the resignations of high court magistrates Alberto
Cigarruista, Winston Spadafora, their suplentes Virgilio
Trujillo and Jacinto Cárdenas --- the latter the author
of the controversial decision to quash the corruption
investigation --- along with Attorney General José
Antonio Sossa. Joining the Colegio Abogados in making this
demand were the Catholic Churchs Justice and Peace
Commission, the Maestros Independientes teachers union,
the Catholic archdioceses Social Ministry, Transparency
International, The Panamanian Constitutional Law Association,
the Federation of Professional Associations of Panama, the
Foundation for the Development of Citizens Liberty, the
National Commission for Civic and Moral Values, the Women and
Development Forum, the Alternative Road organization, the
Popular Legal Aid Center, the Panamanian Center for Social
Studies and Action, the Peace Education Institute, the FENASEP
government employees union, the National Association of
Journalists, the Citizens Anti-Corruption Movement, the
Institute for Political and International Studies, and even the
Kiwanis Club of Panama. The demand was made at a press
conference that took place in the Catholic Archbishop of
The next day,
Panama Citys representantes spoke up, calling for the
reopening of the bribery cases.
was moved to respond. Cigarruista lied, the attorney general
maintained in a written statement. He made no
declarations to me and gave me no proofs, evidence or
information of any kind, Sossa claimed.
President Moscoso was moved to respond. Shut up.
Dont say anything, she advised the high court
legislative committee was moved to respond. The assemblys
Credentials Committee called upon Sossa and Araúz de
Grimaldo to appear and answer questions about the affair.
Sossa, however, cited separation of powers and said he
wont show up. He probably has the constitution on his
side on that point.
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