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map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

Panama is a representative democracy with three branches of government: executive and legislative branches elected by direct, secret vote for 5-year terms, and an independent appointed judiciary. The executive branch includes a president and two vice presidents. The legislative branch consists of a 72-member unicameral Legislative Assembly.

An autonomous Electoral Tribunal supervises voter registration, the election process, and the activities of political parties. Everyone over the age of 18 is required to vote, although those who fail to do so are not penalized.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Courts & Judgments

The Panamanian President appoints nine Supreme Court magistrates to 10-year terms, subject to Legislative Assembly ratification. The Supreme Court magistrates appoint appellate (Superior Tribunal) judges, who, in turn, appoint circuit and municipal court judges in their respective jurisdictions. Judicial appointments are supposed to be made under a merit-based system, but the top-down appointment system lends itself to political tinkering and undue interference by higher-level judges in lower-level cases in which they often have no jurisdiction.

A point of contention between district court judges and their superior court magistrate bosses is the extreme pay differential between the two. Despite a recent raise, district court judges still make less than half the salary of their immediate superiors. They even make less than many of the administrative personnel on the superior court staff. The pay issue has caused several district court judges to leave the judicial branch.

The Attorney General appoints the superior and circuit level prosecutors. Previously, the Attorney General also appointed the Director and Sub-Director of the Judicial Technical Police (PTJ), but a 1998 law transferred this power to the Supreme Court and requires Supreme Court approval of their removal from office. The same law also gave these two officials the power to name other PTJ officials without consulting the Attorney General. Opposition and media critics charged that this law increased the influence of the Supreme Court over criminal investigators, removed the generally positive oversight of the Attorney General, and made cooperation between prosecutors and the police much more difficult.

At the local level, mayors appoint administrative judges, or "corregidores," who exercise jurisdiction over minor civil cases, and who hold wide powers to arrest and to impose fines or jail sentences of up to 1 year. This system has serious shortcomings: defendants lack adequate procedural safeguards; administrative judges outside of Panama City are usually not attorneys; many have not completed secondary education; and some are corrupt. In practice, appeal procedures are nonexistent. Affluent defendants tend to pay fines while poorer defendants go to jail, which contributes to prison overcrowding.

In 1998 the Inter-American Development Bank loaned the Government $18.9 million to reform the judicial system; the Government contributed another $8.1 million to the program. The loan is being used at national and local levels to: reduce judicial congestion; improve strategic administration and planning, as well as judicial training; reorganize and administer judicial services; strengthen the investigative capabilities of the Office of the Attorney General; incorporate procedural amendments and access to justice; and encourage citizen participation.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Human Rights

The Panamanian government generally respected the human rights of its citizens in 2001; however, there continued to be serious problems in several areas. PNP officers are suspected in the deaths of two men. Abuse by prison guards, both PNP and civilian, is a recurrent problem of the prison system. Overall prison conditions remained harsh, with occasional outbreaks of internal prison violence. The Government took steps to reduce the number of arbitrary detentions. Prolonged pretrial detention is a problem. The judiciary is subject to political manipulation, and the criminal justice system is inefficient and often corrupt. There were complaints that in some cases police failed to follow legal requirements and conducted unauthorized searches. The media is subject to political pressure, libel suits, and punitive action by the Government. Police conduct toward public protesters was restrained. Violence against women remains a serious problem. Women hold some high positions in Government, including the presidency; however, discrimination against women persisted. Discrimination against indigenous people, blacks, and ethnic minorities continued to be a problem. Worker rights were limited in export processing zones. Child labor is a problem. Trafficking in persons is a continuing problem.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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