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  HOME | Central America

Outrage in Panama over Police Beatings of Protester, Photographer

PANAMA CITY – Panama’s National Police faced criticism on Thursday over the brutal beating of a young woman during a protest and an assault against a photojournalist who was covering the demonstration.

A video aired on Panamanian television and circulated on social media shows a male cop holding University of Panama student Ileana Corea while a helmeted female officer repeatedly hits the protester even as another officer attempts to intervene to stop the beating.

And when Agencia EFE’s Bienvenido Velasco tried to snap photos of the arrest of Corea and other demonstrators outside Congress on Wednesday, a cop delivered a blow to his back that landed the journalist in the hospital.

The beating of Corea is the latest in a series of episodes of brutality toward civilians on the part of heavily armed police during demonstrations where cops tend to outnumber protesters.

The head of the National Police, Jorge Miranda, said on Thursday that the force had initiated an “administrative investigation” to determine what led the officer to pummel Corea’s face.

At the same time, he cited a police report that said Corea previously struck the officer in the throat, causing an injury that would cause her to miss three days of work, and said the student was formally charged with assaulting a public official.

Miranda said that the video was “edited” to exclude Corea’s aggression toward the officer.

“If I, as a police officer, receive an aggression, it may be that my conduct, in the end, is a little excessive, but I also have the right to accuse (the attacker),” he said, pledging that the cop who beat Corea will face discipline if warranted.

But the chancellor of the University of Panama, Eduardo Flores, denounced the beating of Corea and demanded the withdrawal of “the absurd charge” against the student.

“For 85 years, our university has been characterized by preparing, besides professionals of quality, critical citizens, and this is another contribution of our institution to society. So we defend our population’s right to peaceful protest,” Flores said on Thursday.

Calling the beating “unjustifiable,” scholar Ernesto Cedeño told EFE that “constitutional guarantees have not been suspended here.”

The National Police does not adequately instruct its officers to cope with demonstrations and Wednesday’s events demonstrate that police “are not prepared psychologically” to carry out their duties.

Certain strata within the National Police routinely violate “the rights of citizens, human rights, and that is unacceptable and should be punished appropriately,” Cedeño said.

Panama’s National Journalists Association (Conape) spoke out Thursday to demand “an explanation” from police for the attack on Bienvenido Velasco, who was arrested even as he was displaying his press credential.

“The journalists, photographers and videographers comply faithfully in news coverage and are fully identified. That is why we repudiate the violent acts, which today are public, as this would be the second unfortunate episode that occurs against a communicator,” Conape said in a statement.

In October, the National Police violently arrested La Estrella de Panama reporter Juan Cajar as he was covering a demonstration even though his press credentials were visible, as captured on video.

Ignoring a request from the government to release Cajar, police forced the journalist to sign a document stating that he had not been mistreated – despite video evidence to the contrary – before finally acknowledging that he should never have been arrested.

La Estrella editor Eduardo Quiros said on Thursday that the attacks on Velasco and Cajar “demonstrate a pattern of behavior toward news coverage that demands exemplary firmness in investigation and sanctions.”

Velasco, who remained hospitalized on Thursday with fractured ribs, recounted his experience in an interview with Telemetro television.

“At the moment of the arrest of the students, I was trying to take photographs and the police were impeding my work,” Velasco said. “Subsequently, there was an argument, they pushed me and one of them struck me in the back.”

Alluding to the National Police claim that Corea hit an officer before she was beaten, attorney, journalist and human rights activist Lina Vega invoked the force’s motto when she challenged authorities to justify the aggression against Velasco.

“And who was the @EFE news photographer assaulting, Misters Protect and Serve?” she wrote on Twitter.

 

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