Panama court finds ex-president Martinelli not guilty of spying charges

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - A Panamanian court on Friday declared former president Ricardo Martinelli not guilty of charges that he spied on 150 people, including politicians, union leaders and journalists during his 2009-2014 presidency, and ordered his release.

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According to the verdict read by one of the tribunal’s three judges, prosecutors “failed to prove” their theory and “reasonable doubts arose” about the accusations presented.

The judges lifted a measure that prevented Martinelli from leaving the country. The former president was granted house arrest in June, after spending a year in preventive detention in a Panamanian jail.

Martinelli was extradited to Panama in June 2018 from the United States to face a variety of charges. He had been living in the United States since 2015.

In April, Panama’s electoral tribunal forbade the 67-year-old supermarket tycoon from running for mayor of Panama City and a seat in Congress in elections in May, citing his failure to meet residency requirements.

The Prosecutor’s Office had requested a 21-year sentence against Martinelli: four years for interception of telecommunications without judicial authorization, four years for follow-up and surveillance without authorization, ten years for seizure, and three years for embezzlement.

At the end of oral arguments on Thursday, prosecutor Ricaurte Gonzalez asked for “an exemplary conviction” against Martinelli to set a precedent in Panama.

Gonzalez maintained that the evidence and testimony presented before the tribunal confirmed that during Martinelli’s term “he violated the right to privacy of hundreds of Panamanians.”

The tribunal recognized “indications” of “activities outside the law” in the National Security Council, “however questions arise that the evidence did not solve.”

In a brief judge-approved intervention in the trial, Martinelli insisted, “I am innocent ...” after insisting that the case against him was “a criminal conspiracy” to discredit him fomented by a former ally, Juan Carlos Varela, who ruled Panama from 2014 to 2019.

Reporting by Elida Moreno; editing by Delphine Schrank, Sandra Maler & Kim Coghill