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Dissident Leaders Arrested Before Big Rally

April 28, 1988

PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ State security agents arrested at least eight opposition leaders and sought others today hours before a planned mass demonstration against the rule of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

The arrest of all leaders of the National Civic Crusade was ordered Wednesday night by Panama’s attorney general under a law prohibiting ″tumultuous meetings″ aimed at ″intimidating or threatening″ others.

The U.S. Southern Command told American servicemen and their dependents in Panama to reduce the amount of time they spend in public areas, citing the probability of demonstrations against Noriega.

The command also ordered Defense Department schools on the Pacific end of the Panama Canal to close at noon EDT, said Capt. Nancy LaLuntas, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

The attorney general, Carlos A. Villalaz, said the order applied to the 35 directors of the group, plus an unspecified number of neighborhood leaders of the planned demonstration.

Many crusade leaders have been in hiding since their headquarters in a Panama City hotel was raided following a mass demonstration on March 28. More than 40 people were arrested in that sweep, including eight foreign journalists.

All but one of those arrested last month were released within a few days. The exception was Carlos Gonzalez de la Lastra, a top leader of the group who was held for 10 days and then fled into exile in Venezuela.

The National Civic Crusade is a coalition of about 200 professional, labor, business, civic, political and other groups that has been seeking Noriega’s ouster since June. It is supported by the United States, where Noriega is under indictment on drug trafficking charges.

Noriega is leader of the nation’s defense forces and controls the government. The United States has imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Panama in an effort to force Noriega’s ouster. The sanctions have created a severe cash shortage in Panama.

The National Civic Crusade announced plans last week for a demonstration this afternoon along more than 30 blocks of the capital’s main commercial avenue. Largely through handbills and word of mouth, it had been urging a massive turnout.

The group has been unable to mount a large-scale demonstration since last month’s rally and march by an estimated 10,000 supporters was smashed by riot police and soldiers using water cannons, tear gas, shotguns and rubber truncheons.

Police arrested a number of opposition leaders a few days before another planned mass demonstration last Oct. 22. None were held for more than four days, but the demonstration collapsed for lack of leadership and apparent fear of arrest by supporters.

The attorney general said raids on several offices and homes by state security agents earlier this week had turned up what he called crusade plans for ″urban violence″ aimed at destabilizing the country.

Among offices raided were those of the Panama Industrial Association, the Panamanian Odontological Association and the National Medical Commission. All three organizations complained that the raids were conducted without proper search warrants.

Among those arrested was Enrique Marquez, president-elect of the Panama Canal Society of Professional Engineers. The Society isued a statement calling his detention ″one more proof of the constant violation of human rights by the Defense Forces of the Republic of Panama.″

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