Panama’s Ex-president Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison for Corruption

A court in Panama has convicted former President Ricardo Martinelli of money laundering and sentenced him to 10 years and eight months in prison, in a case that could have implications for the country’s 2024 elections.

Mr. Martinelli, 71, who was in office from 2009 to 2014, was also ordered to pay a fine of $19.2 million for his role in the scheme, which involved using public funds to buy a media conglomerate that supported his government.

The verdict, delivered on Tuesday by Judge Roberto Tejeira, was the result of a trial that lasted more than two years and faced several delays and controversies. Mr. Martinelli, who denies any wrongdoing, has said he will appeal the decision.

The case is known as “New Business”, after the name of the alleged front company that received about $43 million from firms that obtained lucrative state contracts during Mr. Martinelli’s administration. The money was then used to acquire a majority stake in Grupo Editorial El Siglo y La Estrella (GESE), which owns two of Panama’s oldest newspapers.

Prosecutors argued that Mr. Martinelli orchestrated the scheme to gain control over the media and influence public opinion in his favor. They presented evidence of wire transfers, bank statements, invoices and emails that linked Mr. Martinelli and his associates to the transactions.

The defense team, led by lawyer Carlos Carrillo, claimed that the evidence was fabricated or manipulated by political enemies of Mr. Martinelli, who is the leader of the opposition party Realizando Metas (RM). They also questioned the impartiality of the judge and the prosecutors, who were appointed by Mr. Martinelli’s successor and rival, Juan Carlos Varela.

Mr. Martinelli, who was extradited from the United States in 2018 to face charges of illegal wiretapping and embezzlement, was acquitted of those accusations in 2019 due to lack of evidence. However, he remains under investigation for another case of alleged corruption involving bribes from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Despite his legal troubles, Mr. Martinelli has maintained his popularity among a segment of Panamanian voters who credit him with boosting the economy and implementing social programs during his tenure. In June, he was chosen as the presidential candidate of RM for the 2024 elections, after winning an internal primary with more than 90% of the votes.

His supporters have denounced the verdict as a political persecution aimed at preventing him from running for office again. They have also accused the current government of President Laurentino Cortizo, who belongs to the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), of interfering with the judiciary and violating Mr. Martinelli’s human rights.

However, Mr. Cortizo has denied any involvement in the case and has said he respects the independence of the judicial branch. He has also urged all parties to abide by the rule of law and accept the outcome of the legal process.

The sentence against Mr. Martinelli is not final and can be appealed before higher courts. According to Panama’s electoral law, a person convicted of a crime that carries a prison sentence of more than five years is ineligible to run for public office, unless the conviction is overturned or annulled.






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