In record time today, the Panamanian National Assembly approved Bill 529 and sanctioned Law 72 of October 19, 2012, allowing for the sale of public lands in the Colon Free Zone. The controversial project also contemplates the sale of some adjacent land, outside the free zone, under certain restrictions. Apparently in the third and final National Assembly debate, there were 41 votes in favor and only 4 opposed. President Ricardo Martinelli has been in favor of the measure since its introduction. He expressed his opinion that opponents of the measure are posturing for purely political reasons and are unpatriotic; ie people who "do not love their country". He argues that currently the lands are generating little rental income and the sale of them to business enterprises to allow for improvements will actually bring better revenue. It is estimated the income from the sale of the lands will provide around $ 100 million annually and the current plan is for $ 35 million of that income to be invested to solve social problems specifically for Colon, thus making the initiative "good for Colon".
President Martinelli is also citing a particular "foreigner" as the impetus behind the current protests against the law, and reports that it is only a small group protesting. The administration is vowing to start an investigation process against that person, alleging him to have serious legal problems regarding his nationalization. The President is saying that the sale of the lands in the Colon Free Zone is supported by all the people of the business class of the province.
Today, two Panamanian attorneys appealed to the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States (OEA) to assure the life, physical integrity, personal security, and human and procedural rights of attorney Walid Saied, who is accused by President Martinelli of financing the opposition efforts of the Colon community against the sale of the free zone lands. President Martinelli reportedly told journalists for the local newstation TVN 2 that attorney Saied is of Palenstinian nationality and entered the country under fraudulent means. The President is pushing for expedient deportation and revocation of nationalization for this individual.
The oppositional activities carried out in the region last night and today were sufficient to result in road barricades and closures, destruction of businesses and properties, burning tires and vandalism, and injuries to 16 people, six of whom suffered gunshot wounds. One death occurred, of a nine-year old child, from three gunshot wounds. Tear gas and pepper spray were also used for riot control.
Law students of the University of Panama also vocalized protests and demonstrated, but stressed peaceful opposition.
The US embassy has issued warnings to US citizens to avoid travel into the city of Colon, as well as the province for the coming days.
It will be interesting to follow the accusations against attorney Saied as well and observe the outcome of the protests against Law 72.