Ex-Panamanian president wants freedom while fighting extradition

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 20, 2017 12:33 PM

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli will ask a federal judge to release him from U.S. custody on Tuesday while he fights extradition to the Central American country for allegedly spying illegally on political rivals, charges that he has denied.

Martinelli, who is accused of using public money to spy illegally on more than 150 political rivals during his 2009-2014 term as president, has been held in the United States since his arrest outside Miami last week.

Ahead of his bond hearing in a Miami court on Tuesday afternoon, U.S. prosecutors said in a filing that they are fulfilling a treaty obligation with Panama in requesting that Martinelli continue to be held.

The U.S. Attorney's Office also said the former leader could be a flight risk.

Lawyers for Martinelli, 65, said he has lived openly in the United States since 2015, knowing he might be arrested but doing nothing to elude it.

They argued Martinelli is being targeted as a result of a "personal vendetta" by Panama's current president, Juan Carlos Varela, who visited U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday.

Varela was Martinelli's vice president, but the two are now rivals. Last month, Martinelli said on Twitter that Varela was going after him to divert attention from his own problems.

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"Panama’s purported charges against President Martinelli are legally defective, lack probable cause and are transparently motivated by politics," the former leader's lawyers said in their motion seeking bail.

Martinelli's attorneys also said he had already left the country to seek political asylum in the United States before charges were leveled by Panama.

(Additional reporting and writing by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Phil Berlowitz)