16, Number 2
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Ricardo Martinelli installs Giuseppe Bonissi. Photo by the Presidencia
Martinelli, 5-4 high court majority void 2004 constitutional amendment, with people taking cover on both sides
Gómez ousted, Bonissi gets a job that doesn't exist under the constitution
by Eric Jackson
In 2004, the Panamanian Constitution was amended to eliminate the positions of Procurador(a) suplente --- alternate Attorney General, and alternate Administrative Prosecutor. In the case of a temporary absence, a disqualification in a particular case or of an unfilled vacancy in either the Attorney General (Procuradora de la Nacion) or Administrative Prosecutor (Procurador de la Administracion), the absent officials are directed by Article 224 of the Constitution to appoint a stand-in, who must meet the constitutional requirements for the top job. That person must be an employee of the Public Ministry.
That didn't serve Ricardo Martinelli, who's gathering the reins of all government power in his hands --- and, like Martin Torrijos before him, also trying to gain as much control as possible over the communications media and key professional organizations.
So Martinelli and the partisan five-member Supreme Court majority loyal to him took up the cause of a vicious punk, extortionist ex-prosecutor Arquímedes Sáez. They supported Sáez's claim that his rights were violated when Attorney General Ana Matilde Gómez, at the request of some of Sáez's victims, ordered a wiretap of those victims' phones and caught her erstwhile subordinate calling them to demand and arrange a payoff to avoid their incarcerated daughter being transferred to a harsher prison.
Gómez was ordered to stand trial for abuse of authority, on the motion of the Administrative Prosecutor's stand-in, Nelson Rojas, who was appointed pursuant to Article 224 by Administrative Prosecutor Oscar Ceville, who was disqualified to act in the case due to a conflict of interest.
Gómez designated prosecutor Luis Martínez as her stand-in while she was suspended pending trial, but alternate magistate Wilfredo Sáenz and magistrates Alberto Cigarruista, Alejandro Moncada Luna, Winston Spadafora and Aníbal Salas ruled that, notwithstanding any presumption of innocence, Gómez is guilty of abusing power so is disqualified from appointing a stand-in, and notwithstanding the 2004 constitutional amendment, Martinelli gets to appoint a suplente to take over for her.
That suplente was little-known corporate lawyer Guiseppe Bonissi.
The four PRD-appointed high court magistrates, Víctor Benavides, Harley Mitchell, Jerónimo Mejía y Oydén Ortega, dissented. They argued that since another 2004 constitutional amendment, which requires judicial authorization for a wiretap, had never been interpreted by the courts when Gómez invoked her statutory authority acquiesce to Sáez's victims' request to monitor their phone calls and catch Sáez, it could not be said that Gómez, even if she was wrong about the law, willfully violated it in such a way as to have any criminal intent.
The National Assembly duly approved Bonissi's appointment, without any opposition party votes. However, they also rubber-stamped Martinelli's appointee without a couple of the votes of a couple of high-profile members of the president's coalition, assembly president José Luis Varela and José Isabel Blandón, who were conspicuously absent.
Blandón, who emerged from Mireya Moscoso's legislative caucus unblemished by scandals and is one of the Panameñista Party's more popular figures, has argued that the massive Social Investment Fund (FIS) embezzlement scandal that touches members of both the ruling coalition and the PRD opposition has set off a monumental political crisis. Martinelli has been accused by auditors of trying to direct all investigations against the PRD only, and the combination of denouncing the damning outside auditor Consultora López's report as "unauthorized," referring the matter to Comptroller General Gioconda Torres de Bianchini --- formerly the top accountant for his supermarket business --- and replacing Gómez with Bonissi takes on the appearance at first glance as a strategy to channel this crisis on a partisan basis. Whether that's the case or not ought to be apparent soon enough in the actions or inactions or Mr. Bonissi and Mrs. Bianchini. But the perception of a partisan witchhunt amidst crime on both sides of the political divide could be very harmful to Martinelli and anyone else perceived as participating in it.
There is also the matter of allegations by women's groups that Bonissi engaged in domestic violence several years ago. A case was brought and provisionally dismissed when his ex-wife withdrew her complaint. Absent further proofs, or further provocations like obnoxious statements about domestic violence in general, Bonissi's tenure seems fairly safe on that issue. But the Panameñistas were the party that gave women the vote in 1941 and they get an extra slice of the women's vote because of it, so it does not pay in the long run for a politician of that party to appear insensitive about violence against women.
Blandón's and Varela's absence for Bonissi's confirmation vote, then, take on shades of taking cover on an issue that otherwise could in one of several ways come back to haunt them.
Meanwhile Mitchell Doens, the secretary general of the opposition PRD that was run out of office in a landslide after a string of scandals, says it's all about Martinelli's intention to jail his political foes. Doens claims that Bonissi went to office with a list of 47 PRD members to prosecute. Neither Bonissi nor Martinelli have denied this.
But first, Bonissi had another list. He brought in a team of Martinelli loyalists and reassigned prosecutors whom he would like to get rid of but who didn't resign to undesirable posts. (Luis Martínez, for example, was exiled to David.) He said that he would like to accept resignations that have not been handed in.
While Doens and a number of other PRD leaders were sounding the alarm about partisan selective prosecutions, notably absent from the chorus was the runner-up to Balbina Herrera in the party's last presidential primary, former Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro. He has been acknowledging that there was a lot of corruption on all points of the political spectrum, in which he denies that he took part, and taking the position that those who committed crimes ought to be prosecuted no matter what party they're from.
Trials can take forever in Panama, but when Ana Matilde Gómez responded to the notification that she was suspended pending trial with a motion for reconsideration, it was rejected within one hour by alternate magistrate Wilfredo Sáenz, without a vote of the nine-member court.
On the next working day after her removal, February 8, Gómez appeared before Nelson Rojas for an indagatoria, or formal deposition for use at trial. So will things progress unusually rapidly in her case? That's unlikely. If they do, then it will likely be a perfunctory show trial before the Supreme Court in which she is found guilty. More likely would be a process that ends after Martinelli's and her terms expire, which might even result in an acquittal that would then entitle the Attorney General to some back pay. But the president did not override the constitution to grab power that he intends to let slip away. It doesn't matter what the law or the constitution say, Gómez is out and Martinelli's man is in.
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© 2010 by Eric Jackson
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