Panama is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In May 2019 voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that international and domestic observers considered generally free and fair.
The country has no military forces. The Panama National Police is principally responsible for internal law enforcement and public order, and the National Border Service handles border security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed few abuses.
Significant human rights issues included restrictions on free expression and the press, including through censorship and criminal libel lawsuits.
The government has mechanisms to investigate and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses, but information on the process and results of investigations were rarely made public.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government generally respected this right, but journalists and media outlets noted an increase in criminal and civil libel and slander lawsuits, which they considered a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Violence and Harassment: In January, National Assembly vice president Zulay Rodriguez sued journalist Mauricio Valenzuela, of the online media outlet Foco Panama, in a family court with charges of gender-based violence, infringing the rights of a minor, and attacking her personal liberty and integrity. Valenzuela had reported Rodriguez’ alleged involvement in a gold-trafficking case. Rodriguez requested a restraining order against Valenzuela and limitations on his use of technology and electronic devices against her. In February, Rodriguez alleged Valenzuela violated the restraining order, but a judge dismissed the case in July.
In October, National Assembly member Sergio Galvez publicly attacked the personal reputation of Radio Panama news anchor and political analyst Edwin Cabrera. While speaking on the floor of the assembly, Galvez accused Cabrera of having drinking problems and being a pedophile and questioned his sexual orientation. Since assembly members have immunity over what they say during their legislative sessions, Cabrera was unable to take legal action against Galvez.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes defamation, and penalties include fines, imprisonment, or both. In June a civil court ordered the seizure of Corprensa’s assets for 1.8 million balboas ($1.8 million). Corprensa was overdue on posting a financial bail for more than one million dollars for a 2012 libel and slander lawsuit brought by former president Perez-Balladares. Corprensa had been appealing the case for seven years. The National Council for Journalism called the ruling the result of a “failed state that violates the principles and fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution and international law.”
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation but due to the pandemic, the government issued several resolutions limiting movements nationwide and closing entries through airports, ports, and borders. Limitations included strict quarantine rules and long curfews. Government health authorities divided movement within communities based on gender. As COVID-19 spread, government movement restrictions unduly affected men–who were allowed to circulate only two days a week–while women were authorized to leave their homes three days a week. Movement within provinces was also forbidden unless the individual had a government-issued waiver. Local lawyers filed suits before the Supreme Court of Justice alleging the movement restrictions violated human rights. As of September the Supreme Court had not ruled on the complaints.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Panamanian National Office for Refugees (ONPAR) had a backlog of more than 15,000 cases and usually approved only 1 percent of asylum requests. ONPAR processed asylum applications and then referred applications to the National Commission for Refugees, an interagency committee that decides the final status of every case. The process of obtaining refugee status, which normally takes two to three years, allows only asylum seekers admitted into the process the right to work. The asylum application process could take up to one year for applicants just to be admitted into the system, which was not a guarantee of asylum approval. ONPAR, like many other government offices, was required to work remotely during the pandemic. Movement restrictions reduced the number of asylum requests received, but ONPAR continued to receive requests through virtual referrals from NGO partners such the Norwegian Refugee Council and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
The government approved and implemented the protocol for identification, referral, and attention for minors requiring international protection; however, the institutional protocol for protecting minors who migrate was pending implementation approval.
The government continued to manage camps in the Darien region to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to migrants. At least one camp in the region did not have regular access to potable water and at times presented unsanitary conditions, especially when dealing with high volumes of migrants. Because of the closure of international borders due to COVID-19 restrictions, migrants remained in temporary camps in Darien for more than six months, resulting in at least one violent protest in which migrants burned property and clashed with government officers. Authorities reported continued migrations of persons from Cuba, Haiti, South Asia, India, and Africa, nearly all whom entered by foot through the Darien Gap, a roadless expanse of jungle on the eastern border with Colombia.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its NGO implementing partners, thousands of persons in the country were possibly in need of international protection. These included persons in the refugee process, persons denied refugee status, and persons who did not apply for refugee status due to lack of knowledge or fear of deportation.
Employment: Refugees recognized by authorities have the right to work, but recognized refugees complained they faced discriminatory hiring practices. To prevent this discriminatory practice, ONPAR removed the word “refugee” from recognized refugees’ identification cards. By law individuals in the process of applying for asylum do not have the right to work; however, beginning in May those who had been formally admitted into the asylum process could request a one-year work permit that could be renewed as many times as needed.
Access to Basic Services: Education authorities sometimes denied refugees access to education and refused to issue diplomas to others if they could not present school records from their country of origin. The Ministry of Education continued to enforce the government’s 2015 decree requiring schools to accept students in the asylum process at the grade level commensurate with the applicants’ prior studies. As a result of the long wait times to be entered into the asylum system, many applicants encountered difficulties accessing basic services such as health care, financial services, and appropriate housing.
Durable Solutions: The law allows persons legally recognized as refugees or with asylum status who have lived in the country for more than three years to seek permanent residency.
g. Stateless Persons
The government continued to work with Colombia to recognize approximately 200 stateless persons on the border. The governments of Panama and Costa Rica, with the cooperation of UNHCR, used a mobile registry office on their common border to register indigenous Ngobe and Bugle seasonal workers who travelled between the two countries and whose births were not registered in either country.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, with prison terms of five to 10 years. Rapes continued to constitute the majority of sexual crimes investigated by the National Police Directorate of Judicial Investigation. In August the Supreme Court began a case against National Assembly member Arquesio Arias, a Guna Yala native, for sexual assault. Arias was a physician in his indigenous comarca (a legally designated semiautonomous area) and was denounced by several Guna Yala women for sexual misconduct and abuse. A second case was opened against Arias in September, again based on charges of sexual misconduct.
The law against gender violence stipulates stiff penalties for harassment, gender-based violence, and both physical and emotional abuse. The law states that sentencing for femicide is 25 to 30 years in prison. The law was not effectively enforced. Officials and civil society organizations agreed that domestic violence continued to be a serious crime.
As of October the Public Ministry had reported 12,540 new cases of domestic violence nationwide, including three attempts of femicide and 24 femicides, an increase of almost 50 percent in femicides from July 2019. The province of Colon and Ngobe-Bugle Comarca led the numbers with six femicides each, followed by San Miguelito Special District with five cases.
The Ombudsman’s Office continued its program Mujer Conoce tus Derechos (Woman, Know Your Rights), which began distributing pamphlets in supermarket chains located outside the province of Panama. The National Institute for Women’s Affairs continued to operate its 24/7 hotline to give legal guidance to victims of domestic violence. If the caller was at risk during the call, the operator would make a connection with the Specialized Unit for Domestic and Gender Violence within the police department.
Reported cases of domestic violence plummeted during the lockdown period following the president’s emergency declaration in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Some government officials credited the government’s “dry law,” which prohibited alcohol sales from March 25 through June 22, for a reduction in violence. Women’s rights organizations, however, considered closed government offices and limited access to the justice system as principal reasons for the reduction in reported cases.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in cases of employer-employee relations in the public and private sectors and in teacher-student relations but not between colleagues. Violators face a maximum three-year prison sentence. The extent of the problem was difficult to determine, because convictions for sexual harassment were rare, pre-employment sexual harassment was not actionable, and there was a lack of formal reports (only 15 cases had been reported as of August).
In August a female pilot at the National Aeronaval Service (SENAN) filed a criminal complaint for sexual harassment against her immediate supervisor. The Public Ministry opened an investigation and ordered SENAN authorities to transfer four individuals to different offices. In September the ombudsman made an unannounced visit to SENAN headquarters and discovered that the pilot in question experienced workplace harassment after she filed the criminal complaint. The man accused of the harassment was transferred to another department and given new duties, while the female accuser was stripped of all duties and relegated to sitting in a corner without a desk. Additionally, restrooms for women at SENAN remained locked due to the pending case. Women needed to obtain a key from a specific office to access their restrooms, while restrooms for men continued to be open at all times.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Some couples and individuals also had access to information about reproductive rights and the means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The law provides for medical professionals to perform abortions only if the fetus, the mother, or both are in danger, or, in some very limited cases, if the pregnancy is the result of rape.
Most women had access to skilled health-care providers during pregnancy and to free contraceptives through the Ministry of Health’s Health Promotion Department. Contraceptives were available at pharmacies without a prescription and minors did not need parental approval to use contraceptives of any type (oral, injections, IUD, or the emergency contraception pill).
The government provided sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, and women enjoyed the same legal status and rights as men, but the law was not enforced. For example, SENAN permitted female pilots to fly only as copilots, while male newcomers with less seniority were allowed to fly as principal pilots without restrictions. The law recognizes joint property in marriages. The law does not mandate equal pay for men and women in equivalent jobs. Some employers continued to request pregnancy tests, although it is an illegal hiring practice. The law puts restrictions on women working in jobs deemed hazardous.
Birth Registration: The law provides citizenship for all persons born in the country, but parents of children born in remote areas sometimes had difficulty obtaining birth registration certificates.
Child Abuse: Child abuse is illegal. The law has several articles pertaining to child abuse and its penalties, which depend on the type of abuse and range from six months’ to 20 years’ imprisonment if the abuse falls under a crime that carries a higher penalty. Public Ministry statistics as of July reported that 2,887 children were victims of different types of abuse; the Public Ministry believed this figure was underreported. The Ministry of Social Development maintained a free hotline for children and adults to report child abuse and advertised it widely. The ministry provided funding to children’s shelters operated by NGOs.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. The government prohibits early marriage even with parental permission.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering for prostitution of children, in addition to child pornography. Officials from the Ministry for Public Security prosecuted cases of sexual abuse of children, including within indigenous communities. Ministry officials believed commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred, including in tourist areas in Panama City and in beach communities, although they did not keep separate statistics. As of July only one case of child sexual tourism was reported.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
Jewish community leaders estimated there were 15,000 Jews in the country. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities; however, the constitution permits the denial of naturalization to persons with mental or physical disabilities. The law mandates access to new or remodeled public buildings for persons with disabilities and requires that schools integrate children with disabilities. Despite provisions of the law, persons with disabilities experienced discrimination in a number of these areas.
Most of Panama City’s bus fleet remained wheelchair inaccessible. Disability rights NGOs noted for the second consecutive year that Metro elevators were frequently locked and could not be used. A lack of ramps further limited access to the old stations, although the Metro Line 2 had ramp access. Most businesses had wheelchair ramps and accessible parking spaces to avoid fines, but in many cases they did not meet the government’s size specifications.
The National Secretariat for Persons with Disabilities continued with its free shuttle service from the city’s largest bus terminal for individuals with disabilities who needed to visit their offices, which were located in a residential neighborhood with limited public transportation.
Some public schools admitted children with mental and physical disabilities, but most did not have adequate facilities for children with disabilities. Few private schools admitted children with disabilities, since they are not legally required to do so. The high cost of hiring professional tutors to accompany children to private schools–a requirement of all private schools–precluded many students with disabilities from attending.
The government-sponsored Guardian Angel program continued to provide a monthly subsidy of $80 for children with significant physical disabilities living in poor conditions. As of July the program had more than 19,100 beneficiaries. There were no additional efforts from the authorities to assist persons with disabilities during the pandemic movement restrictions. In addition one wing at the public Physical Rehabilitation Institute was adapted for COVID-19 patients, reducing the availability of space and times for patients with disabilities to receive their scheduled therapies.
COVID-19-related lockdown regulations by the health authorities further limited the mobility of persons with disabilities, who were unable to access public and private facilities to obtain medications. The movement restrictions imposed during the gender-based lockdown disproportionately affected individuals with disabilities whose caretakers were of the opposite sex. In August a young man with Down syndrome and his adult sister, who was serving as his companion, were detained by security agents because they left their home on a Saturday, a day designated for only males to circulate. Their mother had to pay a fine of $50 to obtain their release. An NGO submitted a legal complaint against the authorities. Legal companions also faced difficulties obtaining mobility permits from government agencies to accompany their patients.
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
Minority groups were generally integrated into mainstream society. Prejudice was directed, however, at recent legal immigrants, the Afro-Panamanian community, and indigenous Panamanians.
The Afro-Panamanian community was underrepresented in governmental positions and in political and economic power. Areas where they lived lagged in terms of government services and social investment. The government’s National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians (SENADAP) focused on the socioeconomic advancement of this community. In August the government appointed a new head of SENADAP, Krishna Camarena-Surgeon, a native of Colon, considered by observers to be well equipped to head an institution whose mission is to promote the rights and development of the Afro-Panamanian community.
The law prohibits discrimination in access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and other privately owned establishments; no complaints were filed. Lighter-skinned individuals continued to be overrepresented in management positions and jobs that required dealing with the public, such as bank tellers and receptionists.
The law affords indigenous persons the same political and legal rights as other citizens, protects their ethnic identity and native languages, and requires the government to provide bilingual literacy programs in indigenous communities. Indigenous individuals have the legal right to take part in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation and exploitation of natural resources. Nevertheless, they continued to be marginalized in mainstream society. Traditional community leaders governed comarcas for five of the country’s seven indigenous groups.
One of the groups faced internal governance problems, since it did not have legally elected authorities, and the pandemic prevented the elections scheduled for March. This complicated receiving and using government funds allotted to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The government unofficially recognized eight other traditional indigenous government authorities, on the basis that these eight regions were traditionally organized indigenous settlements and territories that were excluded from the constitution when the original comarcas were designated in 1938. All of these traditional government authorities are organized under a national coordinating body for indigenous affairs, the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples. In August the coordinating body requested a high-level meeting with government authorities to discuss discrimination against indigenous peoples during the government’s COVID-19 response. Issues discussed included the lack of culturally sensitive information during the government’s COVID-19 response, which caused the disease to spread unchecked for several months in many indigenous communities, and lack of communication between indigenous authorities and the government.
Government officials continued to meet with traditional organized authorities from the indigenous community, and many requested recognition of their land via collective titles. No collective land titles were granted during the year, however, and land conflicts continued to arise. Several Embera communities in Darien Province claimed that illegal settlers continued to enter their lands during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the nationwide movement restrictions, and that their complaints to the authorities were not being addressed. In November the Supreme Court of Justice ruled the Naso Comarca is constitutional; formal notification was pending to begin the legal process for its creation.
The Ngobe and Bugle peoples continued to oppose the Barro Blanco dam project, which became operational in 2017. There were no plans by the government to halt dam operations. The two groups and the government continued to negotiate details of the dam’s operation.
Although the law is the ultimate authority in indigenous comarcas, many indigenous peoples had not received sufficient information to understand their rights. Additionally, due to the inadequate educational system available in the comarcas, many indigenous peoples were unaware of or failed to use available legal channels.
Societal and employment discrimination against indigenous persons was widespread. Employers frequently denied indigenous workers basic rights provided by law, such as a minimum wage, social security benefits, termination pay, and job security. Laborers on the country’s agricultural plantations (the majority of whom were indigenous persons) continued to work in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The Ministry of Labor conducted limited oversight of working conditions in remote areas.
Access to health care continued to be a significant problem for indigenous communities, primarily due to poor infrastructure and culturally inadequate strategies implemented by health authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several members of the Guna Yala tribe died of COVID-19 because they refused treatment and transfer to medical facilities due to fear and lack of understanding of the disease as well as a lack of trust in modern medicine. In the early stages of the pandemic, local leaders refused health authorities entry into their communities for testing purposes. Deficiencies in the educational system deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic at all levels. Although the public school system reopened virtually in July, the comarcas typically had very limited access to internet and radio signals. These technological barriers prevented indigenous students from accessing educational opportunities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons reported harassment by government and private security forces. The government instituted a five-month gender-based nationwide quarantine lockdown, regulating movement according to gender and the last number of one’s national identification card. During this period the transgender community was disproportionately affected by these restrictions, since transgender persons did not identify by the biological sex listed on their identification cards. Transgender persons were singled out for profiling by police and private security guards, and in some cases they were arrested, harassed, and fined or prevented from buying groceries during their scheduled hours. Discrimination from security forces occurred regardless of whether they attempted to go out on days assigned to their biological gender or their transgender identity.
Local transgender activists collected and recorded dozens of examples of harassment of transgender persons. In one prominent case, on April 9, police in Panama Province detained a transgender woman when she attempted to enter a supermarket. April 9 was a day designated for men to circulate, so the woman presented her national identification card to police officers, but they took her to a nearby police station, where they physically and sexually assaulted her and mocked her for being a man during a body search. She also claimed that police threatened to put her in a cell with 200 men. Police made her pay a fine of $50 to be released.
On May 11, the Ministry of Security tweeted that it had instructed its security services to observe the rights of the LGBTI population: specifically, the right to movement to buy food and medicine and to not be detained or harassed while attempting to do so. Ministry officials did not clarify if transgender individuals could circulate on days that matched their gender instead of the biological sex listed on their identification cards; as a result transgender activists reported many persons in their community were afraid to leave their homes due to the lack of official clarity.
Despite the ministry’s statement, the transgender community reported discrimination and harassment from the national police and private security forces, according to transgender activists. On July 15, the government issued a press release regarding transgender rights, but it was placed in inconspicuous locations in daily newspapers and was not published online. The transgender community continued to report cases of police discrimination until the movement restrictions were relaxed on August 24. In September transgender activists said many members of their community had not left their residences for more than five months due to fear of harassment and discrimination.
The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. There was societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which often led to denial of employment opportunities.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS in employment and education. Discrimination, however, continued to be common due to ignorance of the law and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring compliance. LGBTI individuals with HIV or AIDS reported mistreatment by health-care workers, including unnecessary quarantines.
Human rights NGOs reported receiving complaints of labor discrimination when employers learned employees were HIV positive, despite the fact that the law prohibits discrimination against persons with sexually transmitted diseases, as well as against their immediate relatives. Employees are not obligated to disclose their condition to the employer, but if they do so, the employer must keep the information confidential. Employers may be fined for not keeping an employee’s medical condition confidential. The government was not active in preventing discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS.