December 28, 2000

Panama's opposition says rights case being used for political ends

                  PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) -- Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on
                  Thursday found himself defending a man accused of human rights abuses: the
                  late Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos.

                  Carter joined supporters of Torrijos' old party in defending his legacy even as
                  skeletons have emerged from the dirt of a military base where his regime
                  allegedly killed dissidents in the 1970s.

                  "Torrijos was a man of honor and justice, my friend," Carter said during a
                  ceremony to unveil a statue of a former Panamanian foreign minister. "I spent
                  many hours with him and I am sure that the charges against Torrijos are false."

                  Carter has promoted democracy and human rights in the hemisphere since
                  leaving office in 1980.

                  Carter and Torrijos signed the 1977 treaty under which the United States
                  gradually handed over the Panama Canal and military bases to the host country.
                  The handover was finished in December 1999.

                  Investigators have discovered the remains of five people -- the most recent on
                  Wednesday -- at the former Las Pumas military base near Panama City's airport.
                  Local human rights advocates say the base was used to hold and sometimes kill
                  political prisoners during Torrijos' government.

                  President Mireya Moscoso on Wednesday vowed to continue the investigations
                  and said she was ready to name a "truth committee" to probe political
                  disappearances and under the military that dominated Panama from 1968 until the
                  1989 U.S. invasion.

                  The proposal is heavy with political overtones. Moscoso's late husband, Arnulfo
                  Arias, was the president overthrown in 1968 by the Torrijos and a group of other

                  She won the presidency in 1999 by defeating Torrijos' son, Martin -- depriving
                  him of the honor of overseeing the canal handover his father had negotiated.

                  Torrijos -- a charismatic populist -- ruled until dying in an air crash in 1981 and
                  is fondly remembered by many Panamanians. His less-popular successor,
                  Manuel Noriega, was toppled by U.S. troops.

                  Only one of the five bodies has so far been identified: Heliodoro Portugal, a social
                  activist who vanished in 1971, but officials suspect a priest may be among
                  others buried at the base.

                  Members of Torrijos' Democratic Revolutionary Party on Thursday denounced
                  Moscoso's suggested investigation and said if it does take place, the scope
                  should include deaths that occurred under Arias and during the U.S. invasion.

                  Former President Ernesto Perez Balladares accused Moscoso of "seeking political
                  fame with people's pain."

                  "If we are going to investigate, investigate everything," he said, noting that there
                  were also complaints of abuses during Arias' four brief presidential terms -- all of
                  which ended with his overthrow.

                  Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.