PANAMA CITY – Panama’s Supreme Court has ordered the detention of former President Ricardo Martinelli, prompting the absent millionaire supermarket tycoon on Tuesday to furiously dismiss the ruling as a “political trial.”
Martinelli, who ruled the Central American country between 2009 and 2014, was ordered to be taken into custody for failing to show up for a trial on charges of spying on opponents.
His whereabouts are unknown. He left the country in January this year on a plane headed to Florida, a day after the Supreme Court started hearing corruption allegations against him, and there is speculation he is staying in Miami.
On Tuesday, hours after the court decided the detention order, he tweeted from his account that it was “Round 1 of a political trial: without process, without accusation, without due notification and without a conviction, a provisional detention was ordered.”
He argued that he is backed by Panama’s constitution, which he said contains no law against the tapping of telephones.
Earlier this month Panama’s Supreme Court declared Martinelli in contempt when he failed to show up for his trial on the spying charges.
The accusations are part of a raft of allegations against him of misconduct during his time overseeing a massive construction boom in Panama.
Martinelli, 63, and his former police and security chiefs are accused of intercepting the communications of about 150 opposition politicians, journalists, activists and business executives.
The absence from the country of the ex-leader forced judges to suspend their proceedings on the matter.
Panama has already filed an Interpol notice for his arrest.
Fall from grace
Martinelli has termed the legal cases piling up against him “political persecution” by his successor and erstwhile ally, Juan Carlos Varela.
As well as the spying accusations, Martinelli is being examined by the Supreme Court for allegedly skimming money off the top of a $45 million school lunch contract, and is mentioned in probes into a dozen other corruption cases.
Several of his ministers and aides have already been jailed for involvement in embezzlement and corruption.
Martinelli was educated in the United States. In the 1980s he became owner of a chain of Panamanian supermarkets, Super 99, and head of the country’s chamber of commerce then the director of the social security agency.
In 1998, he founded a conservative party called Democratic Change and the following year became minister in charge of the Panama Canal. He took a first stab at winning the presidency in 2004 but was unsuccessful.
At the next election, in 2009, he led a right-wing coalition and financed his own campaign. He handily won with the backing of poorer voters and business leaders.
Although he boosted foreign investment and oversaw an economic boom, his authoritarian style and perceived cronyism brought down his popularity and led opponents to accuse him of running a “civilian dictatorship.”
It was during this time he was alleged to have ordered the snooping on communications of opposition members, union leaders and corporate bosses.
Varela, his vice president whom he had stripped of the foreign affairs portfolio, declared himself an opposition leader even as he stayed in his post.
Varela went on to succeed Martinelli as president in 2014, beating Martinelli’s chosen candidate.
In January 2015, Martinelli’s immunity from prosecution was lifted as the Supreme Court started looking into the corruption allegations against him, and he fled the country.