Panamanian ex-presidents banned from travel amid corruption probes

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PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Two former presidents of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli and Juan Carlos Varela, have been banned from leaving the country while under investigation for money laundering in separate corruption cases, government authorities said on Thursday.

Martinelli, who served from 2009 to 2014, is suspected to have improperly diverted public funds in the purchase of a media outlet while president as part of the so-called “New Business” case, local media and officials said.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Martinelli called the charges “political persecution” and accused Panama’s judicial system of not following due process.

“They want to involve me because they want to destroy me,” he said.

Martinelli was extradited to Panama in 2018 from the United States and faced charges of spying on politicians, journalists and others during his presidential tenure. He was found not guilty.

Varela, Martinelli’s successor from 2014 to 2019, is suspected of accepting donations from Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht through his political party.

Varela has denied the allegations, and said all his campaigns were financed properly with private funds.

Odebrecht has been at the center of a far-reaching Latin American bribery scandal uncovered in 2014 that led the company to pay at least $3.5 billion in settlements.

Both former presidents must report to authorities once a month, the attorney general’s office said.

Reporting by Elida Moreno, Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan