Photo: Okke Ornstein smiles after a “crimes against the honor” case filed by a deceased American expat 9 years ago was dismissed in Panama’s First Municipal Court on December 22, 2016 (photo copyright: Gilles Frenken).
The Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein was released from Renacer Prison in Panama on December 23, 2016, once his 20-month sentence was reduced as part of a presidential pardon. Ornstein walked outside the prison gates shortly after President Varela signed a decree that made his release official.
“I applaud President Varela on his decision to respond positively to the request filed by my lawyer for a sentence reduction,” Okke Ornstein said about his release. “It was the fastest way out of a situation that grew increasingly burdensome for me and shameful for Panama.”
Ornstein added that he is grateful for the advocacy efforts done on his behalf. “Reading all the messages of support, and the media coverage from the last 5 weeks—it’s overwhelming,” he said. “I will be contacting many people personally later, but right now I really want to express my deepest gratitude to my daughter Esther and my partner, Kimberlyn, who have been working tirelessly to get me released. The same goes to Ambassador Dirk Janssen and his team at the Dutch Embassy in Panama, for doing a stellar job on the diplomatic front.”
Ornstein’s release came just a day after he won a court victory, in a case that was well past its statute of limitations of 3 years. The judge of the First Municipal Court of Panama City dismissed the 9 year-old case of “crimes against the honor” brought against Ornstein by Clyde Jenkins, an American expat who lived in Panama and eventually moved to Colombia, where he died in 2014. The case had been archived by the court years ago, but was revived for unknown reasons after Ornstein was arrested at Tocumen airport on November 15, 2016.
“The case was dismissed because there was no evidence whatsoever, and you have to wonder why in 9 years time nobody brought that fact up—not the prosecutor, not the judge and not even the public defense lawyer originally assigned to me in this case,” Ornstein explained. “The Jenkins case was a good example of how just about anyone who feels offended can file a criminal complaint for ‘crimes against his honor’ in Panama and then the Public Ministry will prosecute the case even when it’s abundantly clear that it has no merit.”
Around the time that Jenkins filed his complaint against Ornstein, the journalist had obtained two restraining orders for the stalking and harassment of himself and his family. Both restraining orders were against Jenkins and Don Winner, the former editor of the now-defunct Panama Guide. Ornstein said he was astonished that these restraining orders had no influence over the court’s decision to proceed with the case.
Ornstein continues to face legal hurdles in Panama. There is yet another “crimes against the honor” case involving Monte Friesner, the Canadian citizen who has been convicted of fraud in the US and Canada, and whose first lawsuit led to Ornstein’s imprisonment. A court date for the second Friesner case is set for February 2, 2017.
“I am of course very happy to be free,” Ornstein commented. “Nevertheless, the two criminal convictions for ‘crimes against the honor’ have not been undone: I spent more than a month in jail and on top of that paid a hefty fine. My human rights were violated repeatedly, while I was not guilty of anything at all. This situation is unacceptable and for that reason I will start a legal case against Panama before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.”