Enforced Disappearance Legal Database

Heliodoro Portugal v. Panama

Key Judgment


Legal Relevance

Relatives as Victims | Right to Know the Truth | Effective Remedy | Duty to Investigate | Obligation to Criminalise | Admissibility | Statute of Limitations | Judicial Protection | Juridical Personality

The Court found that although Panama had accepted the Court's jurisdiction in May 1990 (after the disappearance took place), since Mr. Heliodoro Portugal's remains had not been identified until August 2000, the Court was competent to examine the state’s responsibility regarding the victim’s initial deprivation of liberty and the state’s failure to investigate. In relation to domestic law and practice, the Court made explicit the fact that the judiciary must - under the principle of convention control, or control of conventionality - ensure the application of Convention obligations domestically. It also found that Panama breached its obligations by not enacting a definition of enforced disappearances until 2007 (before which it came under homicide and was subject to a statute of limitations) and found the definition enacted to fall short of the minimum standards.

Judgment Date

August 12, 2008

Country

Panama

Judicial Body

Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Articles violated

Article 1(1) [ACHR], Article 2 [ACHR], Article 5(1) [ACHR], Article 7 [ACHR], Article 8(1) [ACHR], Article 25(1) [ACHR], Article 1 [IACFDP], Article 2 [IACFDP], Article 3 [IACFDP], Article 1 [IACPPT], Article 6 [IACPPT], Article 8 [IACPPT]

Articles not violated / not dealt with

Article 4 [ACHR], Article 13 [ACHR]

Facts of the Case

In May 1970, Mr. Heliodoro Portugal – an opposition activist – was in a café in Panama City, when he was forced into a vehicle by two state agents dressed in civilian clothing. Mr. Portugal was driven off into an unknown location. In September 1990 – over 30 years after his disappearance – Mr. Portugal’s remains were found in military barracks, but it took until 2001 for DNA testing to confirm the remains belonged to him. The events of this case took place during the military dictatorship in Panama, during which it was not possible to have recourse to public authorities to file complaints in order to establish the fate or whereabouts of disappeared persons. Consequently, the victim’s relatives did not report the disappearance until May 1990, after the dictatorship ended. The complaint was not actioned and no one was held responsible.

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