Panama court orders detention of ex-president over spying

PANAMA CITY, (Reuters) – Panama’s top court on Monday ordered the detention of former President Ricardo Martinelli who is alleged to have used public money to spy on more than 150 people illegally, one of several accusations he faces.

After more than four hours deliberating, Supreme Court judges voted for the provisional detention of the multimillionaire supermarket tycoon who ruled the Central American country from 2009 to 2014.

Martinelli responded to the ruling on his Twitter feed late on Monday, saying this was the first round of a political trial.

Martinelli, who oversaw a public works boom and Latin America’s fastest economic growth in recent years, fled Panama in January and is believed to be living in Miami.

Despite his initial popularity, his administration was tainted by allegations of corruption.

He now faces half a dozen different investigations including into alleged misuse of public funds, financial crimes, taking bribes and giving illegal pardons. He was stripped of the immunity he enjoys as head of a political party in several cases.

In the spying case, prosecutors say that Martinelli, 63, used taxpayer money and government employees to listen to calls, read messages and have activists, politicians, union members, lawyers, doctors and other civil groups followed.

Ricardo Martinelli
Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli listens during the session “The role of Business in Development” on the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 26, 2011. The global shift in economic and political power towards emerging giants like China and India, as well as the eurozone’s debt battle, will remain key themes at this week’s Davos meeting, said an analyst. AFP PHOTO ERIC PIERMONT

Two of Martinelli’s former security chiefs have been arrested in the case and are awaiting trial.

In a letter posted on his Twitter feed this month, Martinelli said the accusations against him are part of a revenge campaign spearheaded by current President Juan Carlos Varela.

Varela, of the center-right Panamenista Party (PP), helped Martinelli win the presidency in 2009 before the two fell out.

Defense lawyer Rogelio Cruz said in October Martinelli was innocent of all charges, describing a provisional indictment as “crazy” and calling the process against him “Kafkaesque.”

Neither the court nor prosecutors gave details on how Martinelli’s detention would be sought, given that he has not been seen in Panama for months.


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