PANAMA CITY (AP) — A Supreme Court justice linked to former President Ricardo Martinelli was suspended on Monday over corruption charges in a landmark corruption case that has mesmerized much of Panama.
Alejandro Moncada has for weeks been battling accusations he profited from his ties to the former conservative leader after documents emerged showing he paid mostly in cash for two luxury apartments valued at over $1.7 million. Such properties are seemingly incompatible with Moncada's $120,000 a year salary and don't show up in a sworn affidavit delivered shortly before joining the bench in 2010 in which he declared a 4x4 truck and an expensive watch as his only assets.
As part of the ruling by lawmakers leading an impeachment probe, Moncada's assets were temporarily frozen. He was also ordered to turn over his passport and remain confined to his residence.
Moncada denies any wrongdoing and said he's the victim of a campaign by Martinelli's political foe and successor, President Juan Carlos Varela, to reshape the nine-member high court.
While political motives can't be ruled out in a country with a long tradition of bending the judiciary, Panamanians' suspicions were deepened after Moncada explained that he paid for the properties in part with a $700,000 interest-free loan from a businessman close to Martinelli.
"The only thing left for them to do is accuse me of murder and drug trafficking," an angered Moncada told journalists following the proceedings.
The case has monopolized media attention since Moncada's former aide first leaked the documents. Groups of office workers on their lunch break Monday gathered around TV sets as if gripped by a soccer match to watch as lawmakers grilled Moncada. The proceedings that were broadcast live for hours on all three of the country's major networks.
Not since democracy was restored 24 years ago has a high court judge been removed from the bench and under Martinelli's iron-fisted rule the past five years Panamanians grew accustomed to reports of the supermarket magnate's friends getting rich on government contracts.
Also driving interest in the case is Moncada's own past as a legal aide to the Interior Minister responsible for press censorship during the military dictatorship of General Manuel Noriega.
AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.