Former President Ricardo Martinelli launched his campaign for the May 5 presidential elections on Saturday at a rally with thousands of followers, a day after his candidacy was put at risk by an unappealable court ruling.
The Supreme Court on Friday rejected the last appeal Martinelli had left to overturn an almost 11-year prison sentence for money laundering.
“Panamanian people, I am not defeated,” the 71-year-old right-wing former president, who governed between 2009 and 2014, said in a speech in Santa Ana Square in the capital, after assuring that he is “innocent” and promising to fight until his “last breath.”
The sentence would prevent him from running in the May elections, but the Electoral Tribunal will have the last word after the Supreme Court ruling, which refused to admit a cassation appeal with which he sought to overturn it.
Martinelli was sentenced last July to 128 months in prison and to pay a $19 million fine for money laundering.
This first instance ruling was upheld in October by an appeals court, after which Martinelli filed a final cassation appeal to try to overturn the sentence.
Since then, the former president and supermarket chain owner has filed successive habeas corpus petitions, in an apparent attempt to delay the final ruling from the Supreme Court until after the elections, but they have all been rejected.
Despite his legal troubles, polls show Martinelli remains very popular in Panama. Other candidates for the May elections include former President Martín Torrijos (2004-2009) and current Vice President José Gabriel Carrizo, both social democrats.
Martinelli leads the Realizando Metas (RM) party, whose vice-presidential candidate is his former Security Minister José Raúl Mulino. Both launched their campaign as candidates of the “Alliance to Save Panama,” made up of RM and the Nationalist Liberal Party.
“Cheer up, Ricardo, nothing has been lost,” about 5,000 attendees chanted in the square, waving white flags of the Alliance. Many wore blue or brown T-shirts with the RM initials.
“Martinelli may be a better option because now there is a lot of unemployment. I’m unemployed, my wife is unemployed. When he was in government, companies were very active, there was a lot of money in people’s pockets,” said Anthony Yanguez, a 41-year-old bricklayer who attended the event with his wife, Yarisnelly López.
Nutritionist Lylibeth Quiroz, 35, said she supported Martinelli because “he was a president with whom structural economic growth has been seen […]. In the last 10 years there has been no economic growth.”
In his speech, Martinelli stated that the Supreme Court ruling was a “wild and illegal last-minute move” to get him out of the electoral race dictated by “shoddy magistrates.”
“They are taking away Panamanians’ right to choose,” he argued. “This is clearly political.” He asked his followers to support his running mate José Raúl Mulino if he is finally disqualified as a presidential candidate by the Electoral Tribunal. “If they do manage to disqualify me, I fully support José Raúl Mulino,” he said.
Children in prison
Martinelli was tried for buying most of the shares in Editora Panamá América in 2010, while he was president, with money from commissions collected on infrastructure projects.
Part of the $43.9 million that different companies deposited through a complex scheme of companies originating from bribery payments of up to 10% of the amount of the original public works contracts was used for that acquisition, according to the courts.
For this case, known as “New Business” after the name of one of the companies used in the scheme, the former president was tried from May 23 to June 2, 2023, and the ruling was issued in July.
In addition, the former president will face another trial in July for the alleged laundering of bribes paid by the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.
Two of the former president’s sons, Ricardo and Luis Enrique Martinelli, served two and a half years in prison in the United States for collecting commissions from Odebrecht.