House arrest for Arquesio Arias

Arquesio Arias Felix was not removed from his seat in the National Assembly pending trial, nor ordered not to do public business. But if the ordinary terms of house arrest apply and the legislature does not change its rules to allow him to vote or take part in debates remotely via electronic communications, it would seem that his suplente (alternate), Renilio Martelo Robinson, will replace him for the time being. Archive photo by the National Assembly.

House arrest leaves some questions but removes a problem from the limelight

by Eric Jackson

It was a Monday of watching and waiting, with a morning in the National Assembly chambers supposed to be dedicated to constitutional changes after a firestorm of criticism and defections over the previous few days, and a hearing at the Supreme Court for one of the assembly’s members, Dr. Arquesio Arias. After long delays there were some decisions — or punts — on each score.

The delays were about an expedited appeal. The panel ordered pretrial measures against Dr. Arias, the defense appealed, and a nine-member plenum of the Supreme Court was brought in to immediately hear that appeal, which was rejected by a reported 8-1 vote with magistrate José Ayú Prado dissenting.

The Arias hearing didn’t get underway until 3:00 p.m. and dragged on all night. Magistrate Olmedo Arrocha, acting as prosecutor in a series of rape cases that include at least one minor as alleged victims, asked in a closed hearing for standard preventive measure number eight, usually referred to as “casa por carcel” — house arrest. Sometime after midnight the court announced that the panel hearing the matter had ordered Arias to stay at his house, turn in his passports and not to leave the country.  The standard for house arrest is that one does not leave the premises of a specified residence — it might be somebody else’s — without prior leave of the court. Is that what is meant here, or something softer?

And which house may be of some importance. Over the preceding weekend Arrocha traveled to the Guna Yala community of Ustupu, where Arias had been living and working in the health center before his election to the legislature. There, at least two families requested government assistance to leave the community because they said they were being intimidated, and Arrocha found local authorities divided about and backing away from the Arias matter. The current sahila did not receive Arrocha, leaving that to his predecessor who had received, and apparently did little about, complaints against Arias over the years.

Guna land management practices preserve large areas that are left in a natural or lightly fished or farmed state and crowds residences into densely populated areas. These are crowded but somewhat isolated from the rest of Panama and the world. Social divisions such as about the merits of a criminal case that’s unfolding in what many would see as a foreign court against a person with a loyal following in the community could make life difficult for a defendant, an accuser or any other witness. House arrest in Ustupu, or in the village in Wargandi from whence Arias comes, would be a different matter than confinement to a residence in Panama City. Concerns about both public order and the integrity of criminal justice would arise.

Also of great traditional concern in Guna eyes is indigenous sovereign self-rule, one indication of which is that few people would talk about the Arias case with television crews that went to the comarca to ask about it. On the other hand, there is and long has been a Guna strain of feminism, one which alleges that male domination is an undesirable import to a society in which women traditionally had more respect, and which demands a social status commensurate with the burden that women carry in the Guna economy.  In recent feminist protests arising from the allegations against Arias there have been Guna women participating.

Despite house arrest that may keep him from his duties, Arias will continue to receive his salary. Whether his suplente might get control of the legislative office’s budget in the interim is another interesting question.

As the sun came up on October 22, it appeared that the afternoon’s march for justice from the legislature to the high court was still on, and it was reported that the accusing women and girls had been moved from their Guna communities to the metro area for their protection.

Ustupu. Maintaining order in the community during a sensational court proceeding is of great concern to both indigenous and national authorities.

[Editor’s note: The norm is that anyone without special connections accused of multiple sexual assaults, including against minors, would be jailed in preventive detention pending trial. This inequality before the law is no trivial matter. Many physicians are incensed about the scandal brought down on their profession, and women’s groups are tired of the sexism with impunity that characterizes so much of the Panamanian political caste. These are also concerns that should not be taken lightly. But let’s remember that there is a presumption of innocence that applies even to politicians we dislike. At this point the facts of guilt or innocence are not established as matters of law.]


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