Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, who aspires to return to power in 2024, was sentenced to nearly 11 years in prison for money laundering during his term (2009-2014). He plans to appeal the sentence, which he considers part of a scheme to disqualify him.
The court “sentences him to 128 months in prison” and orders him to pay a fine of 19 million dollars, according to the 306-page sentence revealed on Tuesday.
The presiding judge, Baloísa Marquínez, also sentenced four other individuals to prison terms ranging from five to eight years, while ten other defendants were acquitted.
“I know they want to convict me for political reasons. I am innocent; all my contributions are lawful and have been proven. I have no connection to illicit money. They want to disqualify me,” Martinelli responded on his party’s Twitter account, Realizando Metas (Right).
“They don’t want me to be your president, but I will keep fighting for you and your family until I become the president of Panama again,” Martinelli added in a video where he is seated behind a desk with the Panamanian flag.
The prosecution had sought the maximum sentence of 12 years in prison for Martinelli, who, in 2010, used state funds to purchase the majority of shares of Editora Panamá América.
“The commission of a punishable conduct in the crime of money laundering has been proven,” stated prosecutor Emeldo Márquez.
However, Martinelli’s defense announced that they would appeal the verdict.
“We hope this will be corrected on appeal; we will exhaust all legal resources,” said Carlos Carrillo, one of the former president’s lawyers, in a press conference.
Both Martinelli and his supporters claim that this is a “political persecution” to prevent him from running in the presidential elections on May 5, 2024.
According to the accusation, the purchase of the publishing company was done through a complex network of companies where several firms deposited a total of $43.9 million.
This money came from commissions of up to 10% on the original contracts for infrastructure projects during Martinelli’s government. He used part of those funds to acquire the company, according to the accusation.
The verdict now orders the confiscation of Editora Panamá América’s shares and its facilities in favor of the State.
“This is an enormously important ruling because it breaks with the tradition of impunity that has been the hallmark of Panamanian justice, especially regarding cases of significant corruption,” said Lina Vega, president of the Panamanian chapter of Transparency International, to AFP.
The former president was tried from May 23 to June 2 in this case known as “New Business” (the name of one of the companies involved in the scheme).
“This is a historic verdict; it is the first time in Panama’s history that a prominent entrepreneur, former president, and politician has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for money laundering and corruption,” said James Aparicio, director of the newspaper Metro Libre, to AFP.
Martinelli, who owns a supermarket chain, won the 2009 elections with an anti-corruption discourse. However, by the end of his term, more than a dozen of his ministers were arrested in various scandals.
The former president was extradited from the United States in 2018 and was acquitted in 2021 in a trial for alleged espionage of opposition figures.
In January 2023, the United States announced a ban on Martinelli and his immediate family from entering the country due to “significant acts of corruption.”
Key for the Elections
The 71-year-old former president faces another trial in August for alleged money laundering of bribes paid by the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.
Despite all these legal challenges, Martinelli leads several electoral polls and has already completed the bureaucratic procedures to register his candidacy with the Realizando Metas party.
“No judicial ruling at this stage can or should affect Martinelli’s presidential candidacy,” asserted lawyer Carrillo.
However, a final conviction could put an end to Martinelli’s ambitions.
“Many of the people who were considering supporting him must now be questioning whether backing Martinelli would be a bad bet,” said Annette Planells, a leader of the civil society organization Movimiento Independiente (Movin).
Whether Martinelli can compete for the presidency is “decisive” because he is “a key figure who influences all politics, including other parties,” added Claire Nevache, a researcher at the International Center for Political and Social Studies in Panama.