July 20, 1999

Panama assembly supports creation of new court

                  PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) -- Panama's Legislative Assembly
                  appeared likely to approve creation of a new judicial chamber this week -- a
                  step opposition leaders say is an attempt by the ruling party to control the
                  justice system after it leaves power in September.

                  The assembly, dominated by the Democratic Revolutionary Party of
                  President Ernesto Perez Balladares, approved the first of three packages to
                  create the new court Monday night. The other two parts were expected to
                  win approval this week.

                  The new chamber of Institutions and Guarantees would consider questions
                  of constitutional law, such as individual rights.

                  Perez Balladares and his backers say the new court is needed to clear a
                  court backlog. Opponents charge the president, who would appoint the
                  court's three magistrates, is looking for a way to maintain control of the
                  justice system before he turns the presidency over to President-elect Mireya
                  Moscoso of the populist Arnulfista Party.

                  "This project's only proposal is to guarantee the impunity of those public
                  officials who have fallen in the criminal sphere (of corruption)," an opposition
                  party alliance said in a statement after Monday night's vote.

                  Legal organizations and labor groups also have voiced opposition to the
                  plan, which they argue would do nothing to clear the backlog of cases in civil
                  and criminal courts.