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Civic coalition accuses high court judges of corruption

by Eric Jackson, largely from other media

A coalition of 18 prominent civic organizations has accused Supreme Court magistrates or alternate magistrates Jacinto Cárdenas, Alberto Cigarruista, Graciela Dixon, Roberto González, Arturo Hoyos, Anibal Salas, Winston Spadafora and José Troyano of criminal acts of corruption. Former La Prensa publisher I. Roberto Eisenmann, Maribel Cornejo of the Catholic Church's Peace and Justice Commission and Carlos Lee of the Citizens Alliance for Justice submitted the complaint to the National Assembly on behalf of a coalition that includes the Peace and Justice Commission, the Ecumenical Council, the Foundation for the Development of Citizens Liberty, the national chapter of Transparency International, the Panamanian Business Executives Association (APEDE), the CONATO labor federation, the Panamanian Constitutional Law Association, the Center for Popular Legal Assistance, the Panamanian Center for Social Studies and Action (CEASPA), the Colegio Nacional de Periodistas, the National Council of Private Enterprise (CoNEP), the FENASEP public employees' union, the Panamanian Federation of Professional Associations (FEDAP), the Panamanian Foundation for Ethics and Civility and the Institute of Criminology.

The complaint is based upon six separate decisions in which it is alleged that laws and legal precedents were ignored and there is said to be corroborating evidence in several of the cases that bribes were paid or other improper influences brought to bear. The action arises as the result of an investigation by the Citizens Alliance for Justice, which includes most of the organizations that filed the charges, of allegations first made public last March by high court magistrate Adán Arnulfo Arjona.

In one of the allegedly corrupt decisions, Colombian citizen Lorena Henao Montoya, a member of a prominent drug dealing family who was living under a false identity in several luxury homes in Panama and driving expensive cars that she could in no way explain as having being paid for with legitimately acquired funds. She was set free on a two to one decision by magistrates Hoyos and Salas, against Arjona's strong dissent, because there was supposedly no evidence to charge her with money laundering. Upon her return to Colombia, she was arrested and prosecutors there used the investigative files of Panamanian police and prosecutors to convict her of multiple money laundering and drug offenses and have her imprisoned. Later the Colombian press reported on how Henao Montoya had bribed her way out of Panamanian custody.

Another charge is based upon a decision  Spadafora, Hoyos and Salas to quash an investigation of a gun running operation by which thousands of AK-47 assault rifles from Nicaraguan police arsenals were on paper sold to the Panamanian police but instead made their way into the hands of Colombia's right-wing AUC death squads. In that case several top Moscoso administration officials were called into question --- although they said that apparently incriminating documents had been forged or that Nicaraguan police accounts of their involvement were false.

(In the latter case there were also indications of the corrupt involvement of public officials from both the Colombian and United States governments. In Colombia, customs officials withdrew from the port of Turbo for several days to allow the AUC to unload the weapons without being molested. The US ambassador in Managua at the time, Oliver Garza, specifically approved the weapons transfer by the Nicaraguan police at the time, but claims he was misled into believing that they were bound for Panama rather than Colombia. An OAS “investigation” by an American diplomat appointed by former Colombian President César Gaviria “absolved” the various governments of their prima facie wrongful support for the drug-financed and notoriously brutal paramilitary force.)

One of the key organizations in the Citizens Alliance for Justice, the Colegio de Abogados, did not lend its name to the complaint. The colegio is Panama's bar association and as a practical matter if the allegations result in one or more impeachment trials various members of the organization would be working on both the prosecution and defense sides. The group's president, Mercedes Araúz de Grimaldo, did tell El Panama America, however, that the proofs are there of the corruption that is alleged.

The problem for the anti-corruption groups and advantage for hoodlums in high places is Law 59, which provides that there can be no investigation of corruption on the part of a public official unless the person filing the complaint attaches to that document sufficiently conclusive proof that there would be no need for any further investigation to obtain a conviction. The present Legislative Assembly has rejected all complaints of corruption that have come its way by invoking this law, even when the attached proofs have been compelling in the eyes of most legal scholars. Based on the statements of committee president Freidi Torres (PRD-Veraguas) it is also likely that the same Credentials Committee that will hear the civic coalition's corruption complaint will kill a recent recommendation by the presidentially appointed State Commission for Justice to do away with Law 59 in cases where public officials have amassed wealth that they can't explain while holding government office.

In addition to Torres, the other Credentials Committee members are Juan Hernández (PRD-Panama City), Marina de Laguna (PRD-Panama City), Jerry Wilson (PRD-Panama City), Argentina Arias (Panameñista-Panama Oeste), Rubén Beitía (Solidaridad-Chiriqui) and Héctor Aparicio (MOLIRENA-Veraguas). The committee has 15 days from the November 14 filing of the complaint to make a preliminary decision about what to do. Ordinarily that decision would either be to reject the complaint out of hand or appoint a subcommittee for further proceedings.

President Torrijos, who was elected to office on a “zero corruption” pledge, has in the past said that it's improper for the executive branch to interfere in matters that are before the courts or the legislature. He is, however, leader of the PRD and would have certain executive levers he could pull to get his way in the National Assembly. But even then, in the case of an impeachment trial a two-thirds majority of the legislature is needed to convict and the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party and Popular Party coalition falls well short of the 52 votes that would be needed for any conviction.

The government coalition does, however, have the votes it would need to increase the court's membership from its current nine magistrates, effectively reducing the power of the discredited incumbent majority. The president has also   created a committee to give him some recommendations for appointments to fill court vacancies that will come up early next year. While Torrijos rejects the advice of his own justice commission about changing the way that Supreme Court judges are appointed, he does say that the current system has been abused and promises that he has different standards than those of the administrations that preceded his. “I have a constitutional duty to decide who the next magistrates will be,” he told reporters at a ceremony at Santo Tomas Hospital.



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