Excessive Use of Force: Tear Gas and Bird Shot in Panama

The promulgation in June of controversial Law 30 (PDF), which weakens unions and potentially limits the right to strike in Panama, triggered mass protests leaving several dead and scores wounded. According to eyewitness accounts, the Panamanian government reportedly sent in 300 National Police to disband several thousand peaceful demonstrators among Bocas Fruit Company union members in Changuinola (Bocas del Toro province) on 8 July 2010. One eyewitness told PHR that the police gave the crowd 30 minutes to clear the streets. Protesters refused, and police began firing into the crowd.Both official and eyewitness accounts confirm police use of various lachrymators (tear gas) and “perdigones” (lead pellets, or bird shot) and that demonstrators retaliated by throwing stones. One eyewitness (a local resident and bystander to the protest) described the indiscriminate use of tear gas and pellet shots, and said the police “fired wherever and at whomever.” He further reported that the police shot him at close range in the eye with bird shot when he entered the street to rescue a three-year old girl. Doctors stated he may be permanently blind in one eye.Official reports (see: AP, “Panama: 2nd banana worker killed in labor protest” and Human Rights Everywhere, “URGENT REVIEW OF EVENTS IN PANAMA: HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS, THE COUNTRY?S DEMOCRATIC SYSTEM IN SERIOUS CRISIS,” pg. 4 [English – PDF,?Spanish – PDF]) acknowledge two or three deaths and approximately 150 injured. Community members and union leaders affirm ((Urgent Review of Events in Panama, pg4)) a dozen deaths and some 1000 injured. Causes of death remain unknown, and the majority of serious injuries are reportedly from the perdigones fired at close range. PHR received unconfirmed reports that several protesters suffer from permanent vision loss in one or both eyes, although the exact number of such injuries is unknown. PHR is gravely concerned about reports of disappeared persons, which the media has largely neglected.Sources in Panama, who have visited the injured in hospitals, report injuries indicative of bullet wounds, although PHR cannot directly confirm these cases. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement on July 10 that denounced an unnecessary use of force in Bocas del Toro that violates the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. Ricardo Vargas, Panama Ombudsman, has also criticized forces for aiming perdigones above the waist. Police stated that they were confronted by unexpected force from the protesters. Many of the police are from the same Ng_be-Bugl_ community as the protesters and reportedly felt conflicted in their role.Negotiations have established a 90-day suspension of Law 30 and temporary peace in Bocas del Toro (PDF), but questions remain how the government will deter further conflict.AS PHR recommended in its 1988 report, Panama 1987: Health Consequences of Police and Military Actions ((pg. 28)), we again condemn the use of bird shot and tear gas as a means of crowd control.

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