PANAMA CITY (AP) — A judge declared former President Ricardo Martinelli in contempt of court Friday for failing to appear at a session in which he was expected to be charged with illegally spying on opponents while governing Panama.
Judge Jeronimo Mejia adjourned the session when the former conservative leader didn't appear as ordered. Mejia said it was up to the Supreme Court to order Martinelli's arrest.
The case is the most-advanced of a half dozen investigations of Martinelli, a billionaire supermarket magnate whose 2009-14 presidency saw record-fast economic growth but also perceptions of widespread corruption fostered at the top.
Martinelli is accused of illegally intercepting the emails, phone calls and communications of at least 150 opponents, journalists and civil society groups. Two former heads of the National Security Council have been arrested in the case. If found guilty, the former president could face up to 21 years in jail.
The ex-leader, who left Panama in January and has denied any wrongdoing, issued a statement calling the judge's action absurd and saying it "reflects the desire for revenge" by current President Juan Carlos Varela.
He indicated he would not return to face the charges because Panama doesn't have "the judicial conditions, or political (conditions), to guarantee my physical and emotional safety."
Martinelli, who now serves as a lawmaker in the Central American parliament, was stripped of his immunity from prosecution in the case as well as in another probe in which aides are accused of inflating contracts worth $45 million to purchase dehydrated food for the government's social program.
Several opponents believed to have had their communications intercepted gathered outside the courtroom demanding the former president's appearance.
"Justice needs to be served," said Balbina Herrera, who ran against Martinelli in the 2009 elections.