Panama's top court silent on WikiLeaks accusations

AP News
Posted: May 31, 2011 4:36 PM
Panama's top court silent on WikiLeaks accusations

As far back as 2005, U.S. Embassy officials in Panama were saying they had "credible and compelling information" that Supreme Court Justice Winston Spadafora took bribes to influence court cases, according to a confidential diplomatic cable.

Subsequent cables indicated that the judicial system had improved somewhat, but lawyers and academics in Panama said it is still deeply flawed.

Meanwhile, Spadafora still holds his position on the court.

Neither Spadafora nor the court has responded to repeated requests for comment, either on the content of the cables or on past allegations of corruption.

Corruption in the Panamanian judiciary was so widespread nearly six years ago as to be a threat to U.S. national interests, according to the July 2005 cable leaked to the WikiLeaks organization and separately obtained by The Associated Press.

In the cable, officials said that they had obtained information indicating that "during his ongoing tenure ... Spadafora has directly benefited from public corruption, specifically bribery, which has had and continues to have a direct and serious adverse effect on U.S. national interests."

Spadafora, the cable said, "epitomizes everything that is wrong on the Court, where unbridled venality and a culture of entitlement to ill-gotten riches continue to reach new depths."

In the July cable, diplomats said they were seeking a "security advisory opinion" on whether to revoke Spadafora's travel visa, an action U.S. officials took in December of that year.

The Associated Press and other news agencies have reported allegations of corruption by Spadafora and other government officials in the past. Former President Martin Torrijos established a commission that recommended better transparency and accountability in the judicial system, but few of those recommendations have been implemented.

In a June 2007 cable, the U.S. Embassy said corruption continued to be widespread in the Panamanian judiciary, and that "despite campaign promises by President Torrijos to eradicate corruption, there have been no significant indictments or prosecutions for official corruption."

In one positive sign, another cable noted that in 2008, the court approved three U.S.-backed anti-corruption measures, including the creation of an oversight policy commission, better auditing and the design of a code of ethics for the judicial branch.

But lawyers and academics in Panama said problems continue, and expressed concern Monday about what they described as the court's systematic silence on the long-standing allegations.

It could not be determined to what extent U.S. officials believe the corruption still persists today _ the U.S. State Department does not generally comment on leaked diplomatic cables, and the U.S. Embassy in Panama City did not respond to a request for comment.

The president of Panama's lawyers' association, former top prosecutor Rogelio Cruz, said Monday the court has instituted a worrisome policy of systematic silence on the accusations.

Political science professor Miguel Antonio Bernal said Monday the accusations in the U.S. Embassy cable "just corroborate the high degree of corruption" that exists in Panama's legal system.

Spadafora's 10-year term on the Supreme Court ends in December.