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Bragg soldier charged in Panamanian woman's death

Posted June 30
Updated July 1

— Activists in Panama are demanding that a Fort Bragg soldier suspected of killing a local woman be tried in local courts.

Master Sgt. Omar Antonio Velez, 35, is under a military hold at the Cumberland County Detention Center in Fayetteville in connection with the death of woman in her mid-20s whose body was found in Panama on June 23.

He was charged in the military justice system Monday with unpremeditated murder, according to Army spokeswoman Kimberly Hanson.

Velez is assigned to the U.S. Army Security Assistance Training Management Organization and is permanently stationed in Fort Bragg. In his capacity, he was issued a diplomatic passport identifying him a as member of the Administrative and Technical staff of the U.S. Embassy, which granted him immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of Panama.

He has not made any public statements about the case and Hanson could not supply the name of his military defense attorney. He was being held without bond.

Joyce Araujo, president of the Foundation for Gender Equity in Panama, told The Associated Press Monday that she believes Velez' diplomatic immunity allowed him to evade proper investigation.

Her group is among those in a coalition of women's rights groups that expressed disappointment on Friday in the handling of the case, and demanded that local leaders reassert sovereignty.

"Diplomatic immunity cannot be an opening for impunity when it involves a crime as profound as the killing of women, especially a Panamanian woman on Panamanian soil," the coalition wrote.

Velez, who is assigned to the U.S. Army Security Assistance Training Management Organization and is permanently stationed in Fort Bragg. He has served in the military since 2000, held a leadership position as a senior non-commissioned officer.

He was in Panama conducting training as part of a unit associated with the sale of military equipment when the killing occurred.

Local media report that Velez allegedly had been romantically involved with the woman and was discovered near her body with a shovel after an apparent crime of passion.

The body was found in central Panama on a farm near a river embankment, close to where a firearms training session was being held, according to Panamanian officials. The Army spokeswoman said Panamanian officials detained Velez the same day, then handed him over to U.S. authorities who took him back to North Carolina.

Relations between Panama and the United States have historically snared over issues of sovereignty, and the incident threatens to stir old resentments.

The assertion of immunity is likely to remind Panamanians of the many decades during which the U.S. claimed jurisdiction over the Panama Canal and its surrounding area, which struck many in the country as a vestige of colonial days.

Even when Americans committed crimes outside of this zone, local police tended to let them off the hook out of deference to U.S. power, leading Americans in Panama to develop a sense of invincibility, said Alan McPherson, professor of international studies at the University of Oklahoma.

"The 20th century is an almost endless series of spectacular criminal episodes that spoke of the great power differential between Panamanians and Americans," McPherson said.

The U.S. Army has expressed its "deepest regret" over the woman's death, and pledged to fully investigate the killing.

Fayetteville attorney and former military JAG officer Joe Vonnegut is very familiar with diplomatic immunity and why it's important for US service members to have it.

"I don't know of a nicer way to phrase it. We don't want one of our soldiers rotting in a foreign jail," Vonnegut said. "If they are going to be prosecuted, and if they are convicted, they will do time back her in the United States in a military jail."

8 Comments

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  • maureenmercer1 Jul 7, 10:00 a.m.

    He should have his immunity removed and face up for his crime if guilty.

  • JE Jul 2, 2:28 p.m.

    I as a white man and a vet am tired of the disrespect being shown our President time after time... View More

    — Posted by razor2

    You're wasting your time trying to shame people who have no concept of the word's meaning.

  • razor2 Jul 1, 2:47 p.m.

    I as a white man and a vet am tired of the disrespect being shown our President time after time on these boards..
    His name is Barack Obama not Barry Wral you need to educate these posters or remove them....

  • JE Jul 1, 1:29 p.m.

    If this murder was committed on Panamanian soil, not on an American base in Panama, then he... View More

    — Posted by BarryHatesAmerica

    But we're special, we're Americans. Don't you believe in "American exceptionalism" ? Isn't that what we believe by refusing to subject ourselves to the International Criminal Court - since, of course, our soldiers are so wonderful that they'd never commit war crimes or anything like that.

  • sunshine1040 Jul 1, 12:03 p.m.

    Was the crime committed on Panamian soil if so then they should get to try him just as we would if a citizen visiting the US would be tried by whatever juristiction he committed the crime in

  • scubagirl2 Jul 1, 8:30 a.m.

    For once I agree w/ Hans. He should be sent back IF found to be guilty of this. And I tend to feel it should not be a military court but a Panamanian one. If the tables were reversed we would fight to have a killer kept here and tried.

  • BarryHatesAmerica Jul 1, 8:23 a.m.

    If this murder was committed on Panamanian soil, not on an American base in Panama, then he should be tried in a Panamanian court. Did we not just go into another country to bring back someone suspected of crimes against Americans who were murdered? I'm sure that Barry doesn't have the stones to allow this.

  • Super Hans Jul 1, 8:15 a.m.

    Turn him over to face justice.