Nicaragua granted asylum this Wednesday to former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, days after he lost the last appeal to overturn an almost 11-year prison sentence for money laundering.
Martinelli “requested asylum at the Embassy of the Republic of Nicaragua in Panama, considering himself persecuted for political reasons and at risk,” reads a note sent by Managua’s foreign ministry to Panama, adding that President Daniel Ortega’s government decided to grant it.
The note, read in Managua to the press by the vice president and Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, asks Panamanian authorities “to provide assurances for the prompt departure and humanitarian transfer of asylum seeker Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Berrocal to the territory of the Republic of Nicaragua”.
The right-wing former president (2009-2014) had started his campaign for the May 5 presidential election last Saturday, a day after the Supreme Court published the ruling rejecting his last legal appeal to overturn the prison sentence.
Managua has granted asylum to other Central American former presidents and senior officials facing legal troubles, including former Salvadoran leftist presidents Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) and Salvador Sánchez Cerén (2014-2019).
After the Supreme Court ruling, the Electoral Tribunal must formalize his disqualification from the presidential race. Martinelli’s conviction was to become final this Friday, allowing Panamanian authorities to order his arrest.
Danger to life
Martinelli requested asylum “due to the imminent danger to his life,” said his spokesman, Luis Eduardo Camacho, to journalists outside the Nicaraguan embassy.
“We received information from people working directly in the Presidency where [they said] they wanted to imprison him to kill him,” declared Martinelli’s lawyer Shirley Castañeda, also outside the embassy.
Hours later, Panama’s Foreign Ministry denied having granted a safe passage for the former president to leave the country, as reported by some local media.
“The foreign ministry communicates that information […] regarding an alleged safe passage granted” to Martinelli “is completely false,” it said on Twitter.
“So far, this Ministry has limited itself to informing the competent authorities of said communication [from Nicaragua] and no other action has been taken,” it said in a statement.
Martinelli, 71, was sentenced last July to 128 months in prison and to pay a $19 million fine for money laundering.
The first instance ruling was upheld in October by an appeals court, after which Martinelli filed a final appeal for annulment to try to overturn the sentence.
Since then, the former president and supermarket chain owner filed successive habeas corpus petitions, in an apparent attempt to delay the Supreme Court’s final ruling until after the elections, but all were rejected.
Despite his legal troubles, Martinelli remains very popular in Panama, according to polls. Other candidates in the May elections are former president Martín Torrijos (2004-2009) and current vice president José Gabriel Carrizo, both social democrats.
Martinelli leads the party Realizando Metas (RM, his initials), whose vice-presidential candidate is his former Minister of Public Security José Raúl Mulino.
“Ricardo Martinelli made a very personal decision, he did not consult us,” made a “difficult decision” to protect himself, said Mulino at a press conference, adding that he will assume the presidential candidacy that the former president headed.
Martinelli described the Supreme Court ruling as a “savage and illegal last-minute move” to take him out of the electoral race dictated by “two-bit judges.” He also asked his followers to support Mulino if he was disqualified as a candidate.
Purchase of newspaper
Martinelli was tried for buying a majority stake in Editora Panamá América in 2010 with money from collecting commissions on infrastructure works while he was president.
Part of the $43.9 million that various companies deposited in a complex scheme of companies from the payment of bribes, up to 10% of the amount of the original public works contracts, was used for that acquisition, according to the court. This case is known as “New Business” by the name of one of the companies used in the scheme.
Additionally, the former president must 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.