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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Panama bans ex-leader Martinelli from presidential election

Then-Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli meets with then-Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Leila Miller and Mary Triny Zea

Panama’s electoral tribunal has disqualified former President Ricardo Martinelli from running in the May presidential election in light of a 10-year sentence he received for money laundering.

The body, which oversees the country’s electoral process, reached the decision Monday night after 10 hours of debate. In a statement, it said his disqualification was the result of his having been sentenced to more than five years in prison for an intentional crime.

Panama’s Supreme Court last month denied Martinelli’s appeal of the money laundering conviction in a case in which prosecutors said funds were obtained from government contractors for the 2010 purchase of a publishing house.

A few days after the court ruling, Martinelli, 71, a conservative businessperson who led Panama from 2009 to 2014, was granted asylum by Nicaragua and fled to its embassy in Panama City, the capital.

Panama’s Foreign Ministry declined Nicaragua’s request to allow Martinelli to leave the country, citing an international agreement on political asylum that states that countries cannot grant asylum to people who have been “duly prosecuted” for nonpolitical crimes.

Martinelli has said that he is innocent and a victim of political persecution, accusing the current president and vice president of attempting to kill him to prevent him from taking office.

Martinelli’s spokesperson, Luis Eduardo Camacho, called the tribunal’s decision “illegal” on Tuesday and accused the body of procedural violations. “In Panama the state of law doesn’t exist, and we’re in the middle of a civil dictatorship,” he told The New York Times.

The electoral tribunal is allowing Martinelli’s running mate, a former public security minister named José Raúl Mulino, to run for president in his place.

“Martinelli is Mulino and Mulino is Martinelli,” Camacho said simply.

Erasmo Pinilla, a former member of the electoral tribunal, said that Martinelli’s team could ask the tribunal to reconsider its decision. But he said no grounds existed for a reversal because the Panama Constitution prohibits someone who has been sentenced to five years or more for intentionally committing a crime from becoming president.

“Like any decision, it can be reconsidered by the people who adopt it, but in this case they can’t change anything,” he said. “There’s a constitutional mandate, a legal mandate, and a decision by the court.”

The decision leaves a handful of other presidential candidates. One of them, Ricardo Lombana, a former diplomat, wrote on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, “This is the beginning, now let all the others who have robbed money from the people fall.”

Polls had shown Martinelli as a top contender in the election. His backers had noted that he presided over Panama during a period of strong economic growth, including a multibillion-dollar expansion of the Panama Canal.

He has faced previous criminal investigations. In 2021, he was acquitted on charges of wiretapping opponents and journalists. He was also implicated in a pending legal case related to a multinational bribery scandal involving Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.

As the political drama unfolds, Martinelli appears to be making himself at home in the Nicaraguan Embassy. One video on his X account shows him exercising on a treadmill. In a picture posted Tuesday morning, he lay smiling on a hammock with Bruno, his dog, cradled in his arms.

In apparent reference to the electoral tribunal’s decision, he wrote: “I woke up happy. The people who believe this is the epilogue of a book should know that this is the prologue of the same book.”

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