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Amnesty Proposal Revives Acrimony of Noriega Years

May 28, 1996

PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ A proposal to grant amnesty to nearly 1,000 military and civilian officials who served during the regime of Gen. Manuel Noriega is drawing debate in the legislature and protests in the streets.

Among those who would be pardoned or shielded from prosecution are a former president and soldiers who led goon squads against the Panamanian dictator’s opponents.

Violent protests erupted at the University of Panama when the 965 names of amnesty candidates in the proposal were made public last week.

At least 20 injuries were reported Monday in demonstrations as students set piles of garbage alight around the university and riot police responded with tear gas.

The university was closed Tuesday and security around the legislative palace was doubled in an attempt to head off further violence, but students and labor groups threatened more trouble if the amnesty is passed.

``The movement will grow, because the Panamanian people want justice,″ said Luis Eduardo Camacho, the head of the Movement of Unity Against Impunity, made up of workers, teachers and students.

Noriega was deposed by a U.S. invasion in 1989 and flown to Miami, where he was convicted of racketeering, drug trafficking and money laundering. He is serving a 40-year sentence in U.S. federal prison.

Debate on the proposal, a project of the ruling Revolutionary Democratic Party, began Monday and is expected to continue for days. Two deputies came to blows last week during a debate on a preliminary version.

The Revolutionary Party, once Noriega’s power base, holds 31 of the parliament’s 72 seats but claims it has 42 votes, which would be enough for passage.

Even if the proposal makes it through the legislature, President Ernesto Perez Balladares, a Revolutionary Party member himself, has said he would veto any measure that exonerates those guilty of homicide or embezzlement.

Some on the list have been charged with or convicted of such crimes. Others who would benefit include former legislators accuse of human rights violations and military officers who led paramilitary squads that enforced Noriega’s will.

The list also includes former President Francisco Rodriguez, accused of usurping public office, and former elections chief Yolanda Pulice de Rodriguez, who voided results from May 1989 presidential elections that appeared to favor Noriega’s opponents.

The issue of amnesty took shape after Noriega’s old party returned to power in free elections in 1994.

The party has promised a crackdown on drug trafficking and money laundering, and the military that helped keep Noriega in power has been dissolved in favor of a civilian force.

But debate in parliament Monday indicated that some legislators aren’t convinced the party has changed.

``A wolf will always howl like a wolf,″ said opposition lawmaker Alberto Cigarruista.

``Instead of amnesty, this is just fraternity, because they’re pardoning themselves,″ said Roberto Troncoso, former president of the Panamanian Committee for Human Rights.

Three opposition parties said in a statement that the proposal ``revives the wounds of the past, the fears, the terror.″

The governing party suggested that opposition members were too resentful of their suffering under Noriega to accept a just amnesty.

``We are proposing a reconciliation,″ said lawmaker Aleman Boyd. ``But our opposition, consumed by hate and rancor, wants revenge.″

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