Salas v. United States – International Human Rights and Solidarity – CCR Docket Fall 1995

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) will conduct its second evidentiary hearing in September 1995 into claims brought by CCR on behalf of 272 Panamanian civilians victims of the U.S. invasion.

This highly unusual second hearing follows one held in February 1995, when attorneys, international human rights experts, and witnesses presented evidence outlining the illegality and disproportionate force of the U.S. invasion, and the devastation visited upon the civilian population of Panama by U.S. firepower and bombs.

The original complaint, filed in 1990 a year after the U.S. invasion, sought an OAS ruling that the invasion was illegal under international law, compensation for the illegal intervention and human rights violations, and a thorough, independent investigation of all damages to the Panama and its people.

For more than two years the U.S. government tried to deny the Commission’s jurisdiction and admissibility of the case, but the OAS Commission issued a landmark ruling in October 1993, declaring that it would hear the merits of the claims of civilian victims of U.S. force. This ruling required the U.S., for the first time in history, to respond to allegations to ordinary citizens of gross human rights violations committed during U.S. armed intervention in Latin America.

To prepare for the second hearing–which the OAS granted because of the huge number of plaintiffs involved and the vast amount of evidence presented–CCR attorneys visited Panama with three members of the Argentine Forensics Team in July/August 1195. Known for their identification of the “disappeared” in Argentina’s “Dirty War, the Argentinians hoped to identify long-suspected mass graves, in itself a serious violation of human rights, and begin the process of identifying individual victims.

Although the government of Panama delayed issuing a permit for exhumations and the examination of cemetery registries, a limited permit was granted for one site only. Unfortunately, when the permit was finally granted, heavy rains prevented the team from opening the gravesite at the Pacora cemetery, outside Panama city.  However, this permit is still viable, and the Argentinian team announced that it will return to complete its task.

Meanwhile, local Panamanian organizations are forming a national commission to compile a complete list of all victims of the invasion and all the locations of mass graves.

A final decision by the OAS commission, which may rule on the culpability of the U.S> and compensation due the victims, is expected in February 1996.

Independent Panamanian human rights organizations estimate that more than 2000 civilians were killed in the invasion–many buried in common graves containing hundreds of corpses–and many thousands wounded during the invasion, which violated the integrity, sovereignty and self-determination of Panama.  The U,S. military destruction of residential areas displaced at least 18,000 Panamanians.

Plaintiffs include relatives of Dionisia Salas, who was killed by U.S. rocket fire in her home as she prepared a meal for her family, and relatives of Elizabeth Ramos Rudas, a 23-year-old civil engineering student killed the night of the invasion, whose corpse was discovered weeks later in a mass grave at the Jardin de Paz cemetery in Panama City.

Gilma Camargo, Jose Luis Morin, Sara E. Rios, Beth Stephens and Michael Ratner