MIAMI (AP) — A Miami federal judge on Tuesday upheld the extradition request for former Panama president Ricardo Martinelli to face political espionage and embezzlement charges in his home country.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke ruled Tuesday at a hearing that a previous federal judge was correct that Panama's extradition request is valid. But Cooke also stayed her decision until Feb. 6 to give Martinelli's lawyers time to file notice of an appeal.
Martinelli, 65, was Panama's president from 2009-2014. He is accused of illegally monitoring phone calls and other communications of at least 150 people using an extensive surveillance system. Martinelli is also accused of embezzling $13 million in public funds linked to the system.
Martinelli has been jailed since his June 2017 arrest at his Miami-area home based on the Panama extradition warrant. He had been seeking asylum in the U.S., claiming the charges are politically motivated.
His attorneys argued Tuesday that Panama's extradition warrant was legally insufficient because it didn't specifically list the key charges for which he is being sought and because of a peculiar retroactivity clause in Panama's 113-year-old extradition treaty with the U.S.
One of Martinelli's lawyers, David Howard, contended that an appeals court ruling in a different case established that an extradition warrant must list at least one charge for which a person can be extradited. The Panama warrant only lists contempt of court because Martinelli did not show up at a hearing, which is not an extraditable offense under the treaty.
"There has to be reference to at least one charge. It refers to none. There is no other way around it," Howard told Cooke.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels said the warrant lists the Panama case number that includes the surveillance and embezzlement charges and that the State Department has concluded the warrant passes legal muster.
"Panama would not agree to a treaty that would hamper their ability to extradite fugitives from the United States," Fels said.
Martinelli's attorneys also renewed their claims that the extradition request runs counter to terms of an updated treaty between the two countries involving cybercrimes that took effect in July 2014, after the alleged surveillance offenses were committed. They claim those crimes don't apply to Martinelli because Panama's original 1905 extradition treaty with the U.S. contains a clause saying it did not apply retroactively — and that it remains in effect today.
Fels, however, said that clause was meant only for crimes that were committed in Panama before the treaty took effect in 1905.
"This language basically doesn't have any application anymore," he said.
The next step for Martinelli's attorneys would be to appeal Cooke's ruling to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. There is no timetable for the appeals court to make a decision.
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