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A New Law to Shield Police in Panama?

Foto de Garrison Gunter en Flickr, bajo licencia Creative Commons  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo by Garrison Gunter on Flickr, under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

[Links are to Spanish-language pages]

Panama's Attorney General Ana Belfon has introduced a bill that seeks to fight organized crime by toughening prison sentences for certain crimes such as contract killing; but the proposed law 651 [pdf] would also punish “those who seek to obstruct prosecution of organized crime by making threats,” according to El Panamá América.

Panamanians seem to interpret law 651 as an attempt to shield police and give them greater authority. The proposed law has provoked concern especially in light of article 42, which states that ”whosoever, through the use of physical force or intimidation, threatens witnesses, experts, judges, prosecutors or agents of the security forces will be punished with anywhere from eight to twelve years in prison.”

The concern expressed by Panamanians stems from the fact that the police have been involved in a series of unfortunate incidents in the last several months. The worst example occurred when the police fired at a vehicle, killing two minors.

Article 42 lends itself to interpretations and questions. For example, which actions can be interpreted as intimidation towards a police officer?

The Blog de Panamá has joined thousands of other voices worried about the way in which the law may be applied:

En la actualidad, usted amenaza a un policía y lo llevan a un Juzgado Nocturno o un Corregidor, y el mismo lo sanciona con Multa o Cárcel unos días (DIAS MULTA), NECESITAMOS 12 años de cárcel, para el que se le fue la boca o le recrimina a un agente de policía por el abuso policial cometido? Para el tipo que ofuscado cuando lo separan en una pelea le dice algo al policía ¿? O en un estadio? Para el conductor molesto por una boleta o una prueba de ebriedad? El proyecto de Ley no exige ninguna otra condición “SER POLICIA” y ser “INTIMIDADO” o “AMENAZADO” es suficiente para ganarse 12 años de prisión. Es obvio que el proyecto busca cubrir UNICAMENTE al Policía, pues ya los Fiscales y Jueces están cubiertos en la actualidad en el artículo 388 con penas de “5 a 10 años” (Cosa que ya es un absurdo igualmente).

La pregunta adicional, es Con que probará el policía esa infracción ¿?? Con su testimonio ¿? Con un informe de su compañero ¿?? O un Testigo Protegido ¿?? Pero también la pregunta es EN ATENCION A QUE SE PONE ESA PENA ? Por qué de la nada esos números ¿?? Los penalistas sabemos que cualquier delito con pena mínima superior a 6 años, NO PUEDE SER EXCARCELADO BAJO FIANZA, y adicional la LEY prevé que usted `puede estar detenido hasta el MINIMO de la pena aplicable. Le recuerdo, la pena es de 8 a 12 años. [sic]

At the moment, if you threaten a police officer and are brought to night court or before a magistrate, and the latter administers a fine or prison sentence (a fine payable for a prescribed number of days), DO WE NEED 12 years in prison, for someone who ran off at the mouth or accused a police officer of excessive force? For the guy pissed off when he was pulled aside in the middle of a brawl who says something to the police? Or in a stadium? For the driver annoyed by a ticket or a sobriety test? The bill does not require any other condition be met. “BEING A POLICE OFFICER” and being “INTIMIDATED” or “THREATENED” is sufficient to merit a 12-year sentence. It is obvious that this law aims at protecting ONLY the police, as prosecutors and judges are already covered under article 388 with prison terms of “5 to 10 years” (Something that is equally absurd).

The next question is, how will the police officer prove an infraction occurred? With his testimony? With his partner's report?  A protected source? But the question is WHAT IS BEHIND THE SENTENCE? Why these numbers out of thin air? We experts in criminal law know that crimes that carry a sentence of more than 6 years mean YOU CANNOT BE RELEASED ON BAIL, and what's more, the LAW provides that you can be detained for the MINIMUM duration of the applicable sentence. I remind you, the term is 8 to 12 years.

In addition, on Twitter public opposition to the law was evident. 

For example, for Rafael Candanedo this is just further evidence of the dictatorial system Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli wishes to impose.  

With Law 651: the dictatorship and its dictator are made official

Mcsuyelis Díaz thinks that before conjuring up this kind of law, ways of preventing police brutality should be found:

Law 651 OK the police kill you they made a mistake and fired first and apologized later and in addition to that if you say anything, they'll arrest you. 

Miguel Antonio Bernal goes even further and sees in the law an elaborate plan that will lead to fraud in the general elections of 2014:

While aspiring presidents are silent, Ricardo Martinelli and Ms Belfond are arming Law (651) to the teeth against citizens. Electoral fraud is starting to take shape!

Despite this, the attorney general, who is promoting the proposed legislation, made it clear on Telemetro that the law is aimed at protecting the public and not shielding police officers: “The Attorney General clarified that this bill addresses contract killing and other crimes related to organized crime; and the goal is to protect the public from those who would commit this sort of crime”.

That being said, Panamanians are not convinced and are raising their voices in protest. The bill is in the second phase of debate, having already been approved in the first and needing to pass through three rounds in order to become law. 

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