Blog: Panama

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June 21, 2011

UN To Evaluate Panama Juvenile Fire Deaths


Children’s Rights Committee Will Review January Deaths, State Response, and Juvenile Detention Policies.

June 21, 2011, Geneva—Today at 3:00 pm local time (8:00 am in Panama), the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will begin to examine Panama’s record on children’s rights and its compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including a fire this past January at Tocumen detention center that killed five children.

This evaluation comes just one day after at least a dozen juveniles suffered burns in another fire in at the Arco Iris detention center.  Authorities have still not provided information on this tragedy.

Along with Panama’s state report, the Committee will receive and review a highly critical report from the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and Panamanian civil society groups (the Alianza Ciudadana Pro Justicia, and the Asamblea Ciudadana de Panama), documenting the serious failure of the juvenile detention system to protect the basic rights of children.

“Make no mistake about it: the fire at Tocumen was both foreseeable and preventable,” said Professor James Cavallaro, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.  “Yesterday’s fire confirms that Panama has not taken the necessary steps to protect the lives of juveniles in detention centers.  Unless Panama changes its failed policies, tragedies such as these will continue to occur.”

The report documents a pattern of physical abuse by detention center officials and police; overcrowding and unsafe conditions; and failure to provide juveniles with basic services, such as health care or education.  It also details the January 9 fire at the Centro de Cumplimiento de Tocumen, which started when police threw tear gas bombs that ignited a mattress, and ended with seven boys burning in their cells while guards and watched from outside the building.

Five of those youths died.

The twenty-six page report, Preventable Tragedy in Panama—Unnecessary Deaths and Rights Violations in Juvenile Detention Centers, is based on visits to detention centers, and interviews with detainees and government officials.  It includes a legal analysis, which describes Panama’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, among other international standards, and concludes that Panama has failed to protect the rights of juvenile detainees and has subjected them to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

According to the report, juveniles throughout the Panamanian juvenile detention system are routinely deprived of basic necessities, like water, fresh air, and light. Prison administrators crowd juveniles into small cells, and allow them only a few hours of schooling or recreation per week.  In interviews, juveniles described regular beatings by guards.  They also reported being shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with tear gas.

“As a nation rich in resources, Panama can and should do better,” said Virginia Corrigan, JD ’11, a primary author of the report and a member of the clinical team.  “It’s a matter of political will.”

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February 11, 2011

Op-Ed on Prisons in Panama: Tragedy at Tocumen, A Call for Real Reform

The following Op-Ed appeared today in La Prensa, Panama’s main newspaper. It was written by Jim Cavallaro, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program, and María Luisa Romero, JD ’08, who has been working with the International Human Rights Clinic on prison conditions in Panama since her 2L year.

A fire in the Juvenile Detention Center in Tocumen, Panama, last month claimed the lives of five teenagers.  The fire was apparently caused by tear gas bombs.  Reports indicate that the police laughed at the teenagers as they burned.  The Panamanian government has responded with promises to improve prison conditions, including plans to increase capacity through the construction of new centers.

For those unfamiliar with prison dynamics, the promise of more and better infrastructure may seem like an appropriate response to the problems of the Panamanian prison system.  Although improvements in infrastructure would improve the situation to some extent, the construction of new prisons is an inadequate response, and one that appears to repeat unfortunate pattern in Panama.

For the past five years, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School has been studying and documenting conditions in the adult prison system in Panama.  In 2008, the Clinic published an exhaustive report in which we documented not only overcrowding and unhygienic conditions, but also profound institutional failures.  Rather than professional guards, internal prison security is often left to police officers, who are not trained for this work.

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January 28, 2011

Q & A with Jim Cavallaro, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program

Posted by Cara Solomon

This week marked the start of the spring semester and the third snowstorm of the year.  Right in the thick of it, we welcomed 40 students into the International Human Rights Clinic.  We also started this blog, which will focus mainly on the projects and people associated with the Clinic.

It seemed like a good time to check in with Jim Cavallaro, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program (HRP).  And so we did.

Jim Cavallaro interviews prisoners in Panama
Jim interviews prisoners last semester as part of an ongoing clinical project in Panama

HRP: What attracted you to HRP?

Cavallaro: When I came in 2002, I had already spent nearly two decades working as a human rights lawyer in Latin America—in Chile during the last years of the Pinochet dictatorship, and then for nearly a decade in Brazil, working on criminal justice issues, transitional justice, racial discrimination, violence against women and indigenous issues. I had a lot of real world experience, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to step back and reflect, or to put what I had learned to use as a teacher. HRP gave me the opportunity to continue my work as an activist—my first passion—but also to work closely with students, and to reflect on human rights and the human rights movement.

It’s proven to be the perfect fit for me.  I love the students’ energy and their sense that anything is possible.  To be honest, their commitment and drive has been the engine behind the remarkable growth of the clinic and the program this past decade.

When I came here, we had a handful of students working on one or two projects. Now we have 40 students working on twenty projects on every major continent- and that’s just this semester.

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