Arthur Porter, the man at the centre of an alleged $22.5 million bribery and kickback scandal involving the McGill University Hospital was trampled during a violent prison riot in Panama last Friday, according to his family and fellow inmates.
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They say prison officers inexplicably opened fire with shotguns and tear gas during a routine search of overcrowded Cellblock 6 of the notorious La Joya prison outside Panama City.
Dr. Porter, former executive director of the McGill University Health Centre and a former head of Canada's spy watchdog agency, has been languishing in that section of the prison reserved for foreign nationals ever since his arrest May 27, 2013 at the airport in Panama City on an international warrant. He is fighting a request by Quebec police for his extradition back to Canada for his alleged role in one of the largest frauds in Canadian history.
"He was shot in the face with tear gas, and then he tried to crawl to the stairs to escape, and he got trampled on, which damaged his leg, and then he lost consciousness," Gemma Porter, the eldest of Porter's four daughters, told CBC News. It marks the first time a member of the Porter family has spoken publicly about the arrest and incarceration of Porter, a member of Canada’s Privy Council, who says he has been fighting lung cancer since the fall of 2012.
CBC News reached another prisoner in Cellblock 6, Leo Morgan, who confirmed the account.
"When a riot breaks out, it’s mayhem," said Morgan, 56, from Birmingham, England, who has been stuck in the prison for 10 years without being sentenced for money laundering. "They shot 80 grenade canisters of tear gas, and everybody is running. Of course you’re trying to breathe, vomiting, your eyes are running ... you’re doing everything. When it was going on, people are looking to save their own lives.
"(Porter) was passed out on the floor, everybody running over him, and they just picked him up and dragged him out and left him on the field. When there was a lull, people shot and people bleeding, we checked him out. We could not get no pulse and we couldn’t get no signs of breathing. We’re not trained doctors."
Morgan is a spokesman for the 506 foreign prisoners squeezed into the 180-bed Cellblock 6, where he says they have no access to water, no exercise time, and have to endure bad food and are forced to sleep on the floor in and around the toilets due to overcrowding. He was planning to meet with representatives of foreign embassies today, but he didn't believe anyone from Canada was attending.
"I've seen more than 59 people die in 10 years I’ve been here," he told CBC News, explaining that most of the people are there as a result of the U.S. war on drugs. "They die of natural causes, they're shot, knifed, there's heart attacks, suicide, AIDS. I’ve seen someone stabbed 17 times and live, and someone punched once in the heart and he’s dead.
"I can’t tell you the worst of it, it's the smells – urine, vomit, blood. The blood smell when they kill someone is most powerful."
Feared for life
A spokesperson for Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs did not confirm whether any Canadian official attended today’s meeting. In an email earlier this week, spokesperson Béatrice Fénelon wrote: "We are aware that riots took place in La Joya prison in Panama. At this time, we have not received any information that Canadians were affected in these riots. Canadian consular officials stand ready to provide assistance, as required."
Porter, who is in email contact with his daughters, told them that when he regained consciousness on Friday he had blurred vision and a severe limp, but feared for his life as prisoners had taken over the cellblock.
However, Panamanian officials told CBC that order was restored at the prison later that day.
"It’s one thing thinking every day about his health, how long does he have, he’s already beaten the odds for so long," Gemma Porter told CBC News. "And then on top of it to get news like that. Not just cancer, not just unclean, unsanitary conditions, it’s being shot at with (shotguns) and tear gas, that I have to worry about.
"That might be the reason he dies. It’s terrifying."