By LAMECH JOHNSON
Tribune Staff Reporter
NO MEETINGS will occur today between Panamanian officials and Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell who dismissed reports yesterday that the government of Panama had granted territorial asylum to 19 Cuban nationals detained in the Bahamas as “misinformation.”
Addressing the subject in a press conference at his office in the Goodman’s Bay Corporate Centre where he confirmed that 24 Cubans were deported to Cuba and
another 20 are reportedly set to return shortly, Mr Mitchell said “there is no offer from Panama to take 19 asylum seekers from the Bahamas contrary to what has been published in the public domain.”
“We have formally asked Panama for a formal explanation of what we have read in the press,” he added.
However, when asked for verification of reports of a meeting between himself and officials from the Latin American country, he said “no Panamanian officials are meeting with me tomorrow.”
On August 11, Panama’s Foreign Affairs ministry, in releasing a statement, confirmed that allegations of human rights abuses against Cuban detainees in the Bahamas were among the considerations that led to its decision to grant the 19 Cuban nationals territorial asylum.
The statement read: “Throughout their history as a nation, Panama has granted, based on international humanitarian law, protection to citizens of other countries who are persecuted for political or are undergoing treatment endangering life and limb.”
It added: “Allegations of human rights bodies, who have warned about the treatment of detained Cuban citizens in the Bahamas, has been one of the considerations that has based this decision of Government.”
Mr Sanchez, president of the Cuban exile group “Democracy Movement” spoke with The Tribune the same day when he and his organisation expressed gratitude to the Panamanian government for granting visas to the detainees held at Her Majesty’s Fox Hill Prison and the Carmichael Road Detention Centre.
However, it is unclear whether or not the six Cubans being held at Her Majesty’s Prison for “disorderly and violent behaviour” were among the detainees granted asylum. According to reports, 43 Cubans were being held in The Bahamas.
The Cuban exile group suspended its nearly two-month-long protest and hunger strike the following day on the condition that the Bahamas government releases the Cubans to Panama.
However, in parliament, on August 12, Mr Mitchell announced that his government does not make agreements with protesters, whom he again condemned as misdirected.
Yesterday, after claiming that there was no such offer from Panama to grant asylum, he went on to say: “There are 18 people in the Bahamas who have been adjudged to have asylum status, and I should say 18 Cubans who have been adjudged to have asylum status.”
“Ten of those appear to have been accepted to the United States, and eight appear to be eligible from other third countries.”
“So if Panama makes an offer for the eight of them, then they are free to go to Panama.”
Mr Mitchell then confirmed that 24 Cubans were returned to Cuba, making a total of 64 Cubans for the year up to Friday, August 16, who have been repatriated.
“There are 20 others who will be returned home shortly,” he added.
The foreign affairs minister noted that the government is particularly concerned about what is currently transpiring because “we do not want a signal to go out to the Cubans who are a potential pool of migrants, that all you have to do is reach the Bahamas and then you get off into some country by some artifice.
“That will open the flood gates and it will be a problem that we cannot contain,” he stressed.
“So we want to make it clear that the laws are going to be enforced on this point. When you come here, you breach the laws unlawfully, if you are not deemed to be eligible for refugee status you will go back to your home country. And no distinction will be made between Cubans and Haitians, or Chinese or Iranians or anyone for that matter. All nationalities will be treated equally,” he said.