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Panama strikes down law that launched deadly protests

PANAMA CITY -- Panama's Congress on Sunday struck down a controversial law allowing the government to sell state-owned land in the Colon Free Zone, which sparked violent protests in which at least three people died.

“The error has been corrected,” said Sergio Galvez of conservative President Ricardo Martinelli's ruling party. Fifty-nine lawmakers voted for the change and none against it.

The president still needs to sign it into law.

“We have taught President Martinelli an important lesson,” said Edgardo Voitier, leader of the Colon Broad front which spearheaded protests. “Not everything that belongs to the state can be the target of his personal ambition. What belongs to the people has to be respected.”

On Friday, looters ransacked shops and stoned vehicles in Panama City following protests outside the Congress against the law. Police used tear gas against protesters.

The violence resulted in more than 200 arrests in Panama City and Colon, the northern city where the duty-free zone is located. Eleven people — a mix of protesters and police — were hurt, authorities said.

Protests first started last week when Martinelli signed the law.

Martinelli proposed having some of the proceeds go to state coffers and some to local development in one of Panama's poorest areas, but demonstrators in Colon opposed any sale.

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