Getting to Know the Major

To Panama's incarcerated Maximum Leader, he is a link to the outside world. But who exactly is Rudolfo Castrell?

A source from the U.S. State Department, however, is more than willing to talk about Panama's judicial system -- as long as he is not quoted by name. Though he acknowledges some problems, he asserts that several Noriegistas, the dictator's former military subordinates, have been tried and convicted in what the U.S. government views as fair trials. "I don't believe that judicial authorities in Panama would tolerate using the system in an improper manner in order to exact revenge even on the Noriegistas," says the source. "That's really straining for a conspiracy when in fact the system is just slow."

And several people in Panama disagree with Montoya's assessment of his client's situation. In fact, they argue, Castrell did not have much of a case at all. "I would like to meet this lawyer," ventures an attorney who has practiced immigration law in Washington, D.C., and who now lives in Panama. "He must be a real hotshot," she says of the 29-year-old Montoya, a lawyer with Montero, Finizio, Velasquez and Weissing who admits to having more experience in personal-injury litigation than asylum claims. The attorney, who did not want her name used for this article, explains that although the Panamanian judicial system, like many others in Latin America, is "Kafkaesque" in its inefficiency, former Panamanian military members are not the only prisoners detained for long periods without trial. She cites findings by human-rights groups indicating that 75 percent of prisoners in Panamanian jails have not been tried. And she adds that in fact, several of the detained military officers have had a hand in prolonging their own time behind bars. "Because they have money, they have been able to hire lawyers who know how to use every dilatory tactic to stave off a conviction," says the immigration attorney. Dowell's decision, she maintains, was simply wrong.

"How can you grant political asylum to someone running away from a court trial when there are thousands of deserving applicants [from other countries] who are denied it?" the attorney asks angrily. "Here we are granting it to someone from a friendly Western democratic country, albeit one with a screwed-up judicial system. But let's face it A people are not being strung up by their thumbs down here. This guy [Castrell] is a big boy who obviously has a lot of connections. He should be able to defend himself in Panama."

Otilia de Koster, a Panamanian human-rights worker who strongly opposed the Noriega regime, agrees that Castrell's asylum claim was weak, but she is uncomfortable discussing it over the phone. "It's bugged," she explains quickly. "I'll send you a fax." The document, bearing the letterhead of de Koster's "Centro de Investigaci centsn de los Derechos Humanos y Socorro Juridico de Panama," offers some "preliminary information" about Castrell: "Everything about him points to an intelligence connection between him and Mike Harari, Noriega intimate and Mossad officer. In view of Noriega's relations with the CIA, your subject may have CIA connections. Such connections...may well have been behind his receiving political asylum in the U.S." De Koster's fax also repeats her telephone warning -- "as for communications, one must consider all phones tapped" -- before offering the services of a Panamanian law student "who can do research for you at a minimal cost."

Such cloak-and-dagger antics draw only derision from Castrell , who nevertheless acknowledges that he has considered Mike Harari a personal friend since the days of Torrijos's government. "He's an unaffected person, a good man," Castrell adds, "but I never had any other than a friendly relationship with him and his family." The Panamanian bristles at any suggestions that Harari or any other friend helped him win asylum. "I was able to resolve that situation on my own," he says brusquely. "I didn't have anything to talk about with such people. Nor did I give them any information or anything. I don't know anything. I entered this country with nothing to hide."

Castrell makes little effort to conceal his contempt for his country's current crop of politicians -- President Endara, Vice President Guillermo "Billy" Ford, and Ricardo Arias Calder, the Christian Democrat and former vice president who resigned in December 1992. All supported the U.S. invasion and according to Castrell they have been persecuting him and other members of the PRD ever since. In an interview before he formally was granted political asylum, Castrell was also willing to show his anger. "Just as these men have persecuted me, I will soon return to Panama and persecute them," he asserted in a low, steady voice.

Such statements bother Montoya. "I've told him I don't want him doing anything that might endanger his status," says the attorney. "He asked me right after the trial if he could return to Panama every now and then, and of course I told him no, not if he wants to keep his political asylum intact."

But Castrell may not need asylum for very long. A January poll of 1025 Panamanian voters showed PRD candidate Ernesto Perez Balladares leading the presidential race with 29 percent of the vote compared to 16 percent apiece for his two closest rivals, singer and actor Ruben Blades and Ruben Dario Carles, a 72-year-old former comptroller general who resigned last November. The poll, conducted by Washington, D.C.-based pollster Rob Schroth for a Panamanian television station, has a margin of error of plus or minus three points. Schroth says that although anything can happen between now and the May 8 election, Balladares, nicknamed "El Toro," is likely to win a five-year term unless the opposition rallies behind one candidate soon. And although El Toro has condemned Noriega for leading the PRD astray, Schroth says that most Panamanian politicians expect his election to result in some sort of amnesty for former military officers, including Castrell centsn, who served under the General. "No one feels that El Toro is a vengeful person," Schroth says. "But as in all Latin American democracies, to the victor belong several spoils."

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