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Panamanian Judge Orders Arrest of Former President Martinelli

A Panamanian judge on Thursday ordered the detention of former President Ricardo Martinelli, who has been sheltered in the Nicaraguan embassy for two weeks after losing his last appeal to avoid an almost 11-year prison sentence for money laundering.

Judge Baloísa Marquínez “ordered the pretrial detention of a former President of the Republic in the process followed for the crime against the economic order […], in the so-called New Business case,” the judiciary said in a statement.

Judge Marquínez also argued that there is an “evident flight risk shown by the convict’s conduct,” who entered the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama on February 7, where he requested political asylum, immediately granted by Daniel Ortega’s government.

The Nicaraguan president has granted asylum to other former presidents facing legal troubles, such as the former leftist Salvadoran leaders Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) and Salvador Sánchez Cerén (2014-2019).

Alfredo Vallarino, one of Martinelli’s lawyers, emphasized that the detention order “is a cautionary measure (and not definitive) because the process is still in force” due to several legal appeals.

The 71-year-old right-wing former ruler, who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014 and was aspiring to return to power in the May elections, was sentenced in July 2023 to 128 months in prison and to pay a $19 million fine for money laundering.

The sentence was confirmed in October by an appeals court. The former president and supermarket chain owner subsequently filed multiple appeals, but lost the last one before the Supreme Court on February 2.

The next day he launched his election campaign, but later entered the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City. Ortega granted him asylum alleging that he is “persecuted for political reasons” and for “his life being in imminent danger.” However, the Panamanian government refused to give him the safe passage to travel to Nicaragua.

“By seeking asylum he has failed to comply with the precautionary measure that required him to go sign at the courthouse every so often,” said Lina Vega, president of the Panamanian chapter of the NGO Transparency International.

Convicted Former President

Martinelli was convicted of buying the majority of the shares of Editora Panamá América in 2010 with public money. The acquisition was made with money from bribes.

For this purchase, part of the $43.9 million that different companies deposited through a complex scheme of companies from the payment of commissions of up to 10% of the amount of the original contracts in public works was used, according to the court.

The judiciary said the arrest warrant announced this Thursday was also issued by virtue of an alleged money laundering case of bribes paid by the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, in which Martinelli is charged and awaiting trial in July.

“We hope the higher court will overturn them (the two detention orders) because they are illegal and violate international agreements,” said Carlos Carrillo, another of Martinelli’s lawyers.

“This is a historic case where it seems we are reaching the end, we have a former president already at the end (…) it is a milestone in Panamanian justice to have a convicted former president,” said jurist Carlos Barsallo.

In 2021, Martinelli was acquitted in another trial for alleged espionage against opponents during his administration.

Despite his legal troubles, Martinelli aspired to return to power after the general elections on May 5. The former president, leader of the Realizando Metas (RM, his initials) party, is still one of the eight candidates to preside over the Central American country.

However, the Panamanian Constitution establishes that anyone convicted by final judgment of an intentional crime carrying a sentence of five years imprisonment or more cannot be elected president.

The Electoral Tribunal announced that it will make a decision on Martinelli’s candidacy once it receives the final judgment. Despite his legal setbacks, Martinelli enjoys popularity among many Panamanians.

If he is excluded from the electoral contest, his former Minister of Security, José Raúl Mulino, will be the RM party’s presidential candidate.

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