opinion

Problems in Panama

Alex Henderson
In September, American adult filmmaker/photographer Fred Salaff, alias Clayton Blacquemoor, was released from Panama's El Renacer Prison after seven months of incarceration on charges of corrupting minors. Salaff and his associate Stefano Simone have been neither cleared nor convicted of the charges, but in mid-December, they remained under house arrest in Panama while awaiting a decision from the Panamanian courts. Panama, which was once ruled by the notorious dictator Manuel Noriega, has a long history of civil rights abuses — and Salaff's many supporters both inside and outside the adult industry have been pointing to his case as a glaring example of how arbitrary and fickle the judicial system can be in that Latin American country.

The 60-year-old Salaff was working on a project for Devils Films at his home in Veracruz, Panama when, on Jan. 23, 2005, he was arrested along with eight other people including Simone and several European actors. Subsequently, Salaff and his Panamanian attorney, Eugenio Morice, were told that Salaff and Simone, a citizen of Italy, were being charged with corrupting minors because some children in the neighborhood had been climbing trees outside of Salaff's home in order to watch an erotic film being made — something Salaff has stressed they did not have permission to do. Salaff, who has extensive mainstream credentials and also was working on a documentary on Afro-Cuban salsa music at the time of his arrest, ended up spending three months in Panama's infamous La Joyita Penitentiary, which has a reputation for being one of the worst prisons in Central America.

Salaff was later transferred to the more humane El Renacer, where he spent four months.

Salaff, who has been battling severe health problems that include a pituitary tumor and dangerously high blood pressure, discussed his ongoing ordeal with XBiz in a telephone interview.

XBIZ: Where does your case presently stand?

SALAFF: I was told by my lawyer, Eugenio Morice, that the case was finally finished in the investigation phase — so called investigation — and it was sent to the judge who was assigned to the case. This judge has the responsibility of holding what they call a preliminary trial in Panama; the best equivalent that I can think of in the U.S. is a grand jury hearing. This preliminary trial is to determine whether or not the case should be dropped or go forward with a full trial. In most cases in Panama, you're most likely going to be condemned and convicted if a preliminary judge thinks there is enough of a case for a full trial. It's going to be a bad sign if we go to a full trial, although any sane lawyer in the world would tell you that there is no real case against us.

XBIZ: Your supporters have stressed that when you decided to make adult films in Panama, you went out of your way to be up front with the authorities about what you were doing and make sure you were not violating any Panamanian obscenity laws.

SALAFF: I didn't pull any punches when I came to Panama. I didn't use the term adult video; I used the word pornography so that there would be no mistake about the type of productions I wanted to make here. I wanted to confirm and reconfirm that it was not illegal to produce adult pornography in Panama, and I obtained a letter from Panama's Ministry of Government & Justice assuring me that adult pornography was not illegal here. To make sure that I was covered, I went over that letter with a lawyer who lived in Veracruz, and he told me, "I see nothing wrong with this letter."

XBIZ: So even though you went to great lengths to avoid an obscenity charge, you ended up facing a different charge: corruption of minors.

SALAFF: It's so ridiculous and absurd. My crime is that, as the owner of the house, I should have known that the 10-foot wall surrounding my house was not high enough to prevent minors from climbing trees and watching the pornography that was being shot. That's the crime that I'm being charged with.

XBIZ: If the walls had been 20 feet high, would they have arrested you for not making them 30 or 35 feet high?

SALAFF: Eugenio says exactly that — how high is high enough? It's totally absurd. I didn't invite the kids to climb that tree; they were invading my privacy.

XBIZ: Although you haven't been convicted of anything, you were sent to La Joyita Prison, which human rights organizations have been extremely critical of.

SALAFF: Nobody can believe the total lack of human rights at La Joyita, the lack of medicine, the lack of running water, the lack of sanitary conditions, the fact that tuberculosis and hepatitis cases are rampant, the fact that most of the prisoners sleep on the floor. Mosquito bites are common; all kinds of insects and critters are crawling around. The food is inedible; the rice is usually burned and unclean. If you want medical attention in La Joyita, you have to be near death and lying on the floor and then maybe they'll come and take you to the clinic.

XBIZ: One of the people who has been very outspoken on your behalf is adult industry veteran Bill Margold, who feared that you were going to die in La Joyita because you were being deprived of adequate health care.

SALAFF: Bill was 100 percent correct. I almost died. I had an incredibly bad experience with high blood pressure and the guard did not want to take me to the clinic, which is very rudimentary and is not open 24 hours. There was a paramedic in the prison; he was one of the prisoners, but he had paramedic experience, and he said to the guard, "This guy is going to die if you don't get him some medical attention." The guard did not want me to die on his watch; so they finally carried me, stumbling, to the clinic. The doctor at the clinic, who was a woman, took my blood pressure; she said to the guard: "If this man doesn't get to a hospital, he could die. This man has to get to a hospital immediately. Why did it take you so long to get him here?" And the guard just shrugged his shoulders. My blood pressure at that time was like 230/160; it was astronomically high.

XBIZ: At 230/160, you could have easily suffered a massive stroke.

SALAFF: And there was no ambulance or anything at the clinic to transport me to a hospital. So they let me sit in a wheelchair for two hours while they tried to organize some type of transportation. They finally got me into the back of a pickup truck so they could transport me to a local hospital where I was stabilized. But the doctor there was worried about my condition and said, "You need to go to the big hospital in Panama City for further treatment." So they took me to Panama City in chains. When I left the hospital in Panama City, there was no transportation to take me directly back to La Joyita, and I was forced to walk four blocks in handcuffs and feet chains to a substation where I spent seven hours chained to a metal holding bench. During those seven hours, they wouldn't let me go to the bathroom.

XBIZ: When you were transferred from La Joyita to El Renacer, did you receive better health care?

SALAFF: Yes, I did. El Renacer is much better than La Joyita, but it's still prison. If it wasn't for the U.S. Embassy, which has been very sympathetic to me, I would not have been moved to El Renacer. I'm convinced that I would have died in La Joyita where they had thrown out a five-month supply of my tumor medicine. When I first got to La Joyita, they said: "You don't have a prescription. We're throwing it away." And I lived without my tumor medicine all those months and weeks in La Joyita.

XBIZ: One of the people XBiz has discussed your case with is Michelle Freridge, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition. Michelle commented that in a developing country like Panama, where there has been a lot of political instability over the years, there isn't a strong, firm history of case law like there is in the U.S. If an adult entertainment provider is facing charges in the U.S. — obscenity charges, for example – there are many legal precedents that can be used to build a strong defense. But you don't have those strong legal precedents in Panama.

SALAFF: Michelle is exactly right. One of the things Eugenio is doing is trying to use case law and legal precedents from Costa Rica, where these types of unjust cases have been thrown out. Eugenio is very dedicated to my case; he feels that a horrible injustice has been committed. Sixty-five percent of prisoners in Panama have never been before a judge. In Panama, it is not uncommon for someone to be in prison without bail for six years before getting a chance to see a judge.

XBIZ: If the charges against you are dropped, do you plan to remain in Panama or return to the U.S.?

SALAFF: If the charges are dropped, I will most likely leave Panama.

XBIZ: What is some of the advice you would give someone in the adult entertainment industry who is considering a move to Latin America — not necessarily Panama but any Latin American country?

SALAFF: Don't go. Stay home. Don't come to Latin America and shoot adult films. Unless you're prepared for a long vacation and unless you have lots of money to defend yourself, don't go. If you have to go to Latin America, go to Brazil. I understand that you won't have problems making adult films in Brazil because it is a professional situation there, but don't go to other countries in Latin America and shoot adult films unless you're prepared to suffer the way I have suffered.

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