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Cablegate: New Law Backslides On AntiCorruption

VZCZCXYZ0000
RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHZP #1371/01 1932155
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 122155Z JUL 06
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 8548
INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC
RHMFISS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC
RUEKJCS/OSD WASHDC
RHMFISS/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL//J5/J2/POLAD//

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 001371
SIPDIS
SIPDIS
DEPARTMENT FOR WHA/CEN
SOUTHCOM ALSO FOR POLAD
E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/11/2016
TAGS: PREL PGOV PM
SUBJECT: NEW LAW BACKSLIDES ON ANTICORRUPTION,
CONSTITUTIONAL REFORMS
REF: 04 PANAMA 1963
Classified By: AMBASSADOR WILLIAM EATON FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D)

SUMMARY

1. (C) In a move contrary to his anticorruption pledges,
President Torrijos signed a law July 5 restoring some of the
legislative immunities taken away by Panama's 2005
constitutional reforms. Attorney General Gomez may challenge
the constitutionality of the new Law 25. One Supreme Court
justice told us privately that he believes the law is
unconstitutional, but it is doubtful that his view would
ultimately prevail. The law deals a blow to Torrijos'
anticorruption bona fides and raises serious questions about
the future of Panama's anticorruption efforts. END SUMMARY.

LAW 25: FOXES GUARDING THE HENHOUSE?

2. (SBU) Law 25 gives the ninemember Supreme Court sole
authority to investigate and prosecute members of the
National Assembly for criminal acts. The law also raises the
number of Supreme Court justices needed to strip a legislator
of immunity from five to six. Both aspects contradict the
provisions of the reformed Constitution.
3. (SBU) National Assembly members who pushed for the new
law claim that it will protect legislators from
politicallymotivated prosecutions and safeguard their free
speech. However, given the Assembly's history of refusing to
investigate even the most flagrant cases of corruption within
its ranks (see reftel), this latest move is seen by civil
society and legal groups as an affront to transparency and
their ongoing anticorruption efforts.
4. (SBU) The new law also facilitates legislative immunity
because the Supreme Court takes a minimum of 810 months to
authorize an investigation. According to the Attorney
General's Office, the Court has so far authorized only one
investigation against a legislator. The Attorney General's
office also believes Law 25 diminishes the principle of
checks and balances, since there is no impartial investigator
with Justices and legislators each having oversight function
of the other.
5. (C) Also disturbing is the possibility the judicial and
legislative bodies already colluded to pass the new law. The
Deputy Secretary General at the Attorney General's Office
told Econ Specialist that Law 25 is a "copy and paste" of
text drafted by the Codifying Commission on judicial reform,
whose coordinator is also a magistrate from the Superior
Tribunal. He said this made him think the passage of Law 25
was already plotted between the Assembly and the Court.

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AG GOMEZ AND A POSSIBLE SUPREME COURT CHALLENGE

6. (C) Having tried and failed to establish the law's
unconstitutionality during the National Assembly debates, the
Attorney General sent Torrijos a letter asking him to veto
Law 25, a fact she made public after he signed the law.
Gomez has since stated she does not discount the possibility
of challenging the law's constitutionality, putting her in a
public standoff with the president. At the Attorney
General's request, the Ambassador will meet with her on July
14, where she may seek USG support.
7. (C) However, the chances of such a challenge are unclear.
Supreme Court Justice Arjona, one of the few Justices
trusted by the business community, told Econ Chief on July 10
that he believes the law is unconstitutional and a "very
negative step backward" for Panama's anticorruption efforts.
Arjona thought Gomez may ask the Court for a formal review
of the law. Otherwise, Arjona said civil society groups or
others could band together to seek the Court's opinion. He
gave no indication, however, on how the Court would likely
decide. (Comment: Given Arjona's reputation as one of the
few clean Justices and alleged possible collusion between the
Court and Assembly, he may well be in the minority. End
Comment.)

GOP BACKSLIDES ON ANTICORRUPTION PROMISES

8. (C) A particularly troubling aspect of the new law is
President Torrijos' role in its passage. Although the
National Assembly unanimously passed the measure in late
June, it needed the President's signature to become law.
Torrijos, who ran his presidential campaign on an
"anticorruption" platform, appears to be taking a clear step
backward. It is unclear whether Torrijos signed the law to
appease his own party, the majority in the Assembly, in the
lead up to the special sessions on Canal expansion.
9. (C) Also troubling has been the general lack of media and
other attention on the new law, despite the popularity of
last year's anticorruption reforms among the Panamanian
public. The story was buried in the back of the major
newspapers, when it appeared at all. A radio journalist told
Econ Chief on July 10 he had received no calls from listeners
on the subject, joking that Panama was "just waking up from
the World Cup." (Comment: The GOP chose an opportune moment
to slip this law through, with much of the country's
attention diverted by the World Cup and possibly the Canal
referendum. End Comment.)

COMMENT

10. (C) Comment: While Torrijos' move is disturbing, it was
not unexpected by post. Given Torrijos' need for his party's
and the Assembly's support on the Canal referendum, he was
unwilling to go against the legislators. Also, with full
National Assembly support for Law 25, Torrijos' veto would
not have stopped the law's passage, although it could have
sent a clear signal of his commitment to combating
corruption. That Torrijos chose not to take a stand raises
serious questions about the future of the GOP's
anticorruption efforts. Allegations of political
corruption, rampant during the previous administration, have
not disappeared with Torrijos' presidency. Law 25 deals
another blow to Torrijos' anticorruption bona fides and
reinforces the suspicion held by those who thought his
anticorruption platform was merely lip service to gain
votes. End Comment.
EATON

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