MIAMI (AP) — A former president of Panama sought without success Tuesday to be released from custody as he fights an effort to send him from the U.S. back to his homeland to face charges in a case of political espionage.
Ricardo Martinelli, president of the Central American country from 2009-2014, made his initial appearance before a federal judge in Miami following his arrest on an extradition warrant from Panama. U.S. Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres, denying a request for immediate release, set a bond hearing for June 20.
The government of Panama sought the arrest of Martinelli after he failed to show up at a December 2015 court hearing there to face charges stemming from his alleged creation of what authorities described as an extensive and illegal system to monitor phone and other conversations of at least 150 people.
Martinelli, a wealthy businessman who runs a supermarket chain, denies wrongdoing and has described the charges against him as part of a political vendetta. He is seeking political asylum in the U.S.
The former president was in handcuffs in court, wearing a beige suit. Lawyer Marcos Jimenez argued that Martinelli, 65, is in poor health and should be kept apart from other prisoners if not released. The judge said he should receive any necessary medical attention and remain isolated at least until his next hearing.
A complaint unsealed shortly before his hearing outlined the case against him, including allegations that he diverted $13 million from the Social Investment Fund to set up an illegal system to eavesdrop on conversations of business and political rivals, union activists, journalists, his mistress, and others.
Martinelli, aided by three people he appointed to run a covert services unit, purchased a system through an Israeli company, MLM Protection Ltd., to infiltrate phones and personal computers and monitor email and conversations.
Members of the covert unit used the system to collect damaging information that was turned over to Martinelli. He directed them to post particularly sensitive audio or video "such as a political opponent having sexual intercourse, or another political opponent being accused of infidelity by her husband" to Youtube, according to the complaint.
In Panama, lawyers on Martinelli's defense team said Monday that the extradition process would proceed normally.
"The defense for ex-president Martinelli is going to exercise all the rights and guarantees offered under the rule of law," said lawyer Carlos Carrillo. "It is totally false that a request for political asylum was denied."
Prosecutors in Panama said in February they were also seeking international help in detaining two of his sons in relation to an alleged scheme to launder bribes from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.