U.S. extradites former Panama president to home country

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - The United States on Monday extradited former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli to the Central American country, the U.S. State Department said, to face charges of illegal wiretapping.

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Martinelli, a 66-year-old supermarket tycoon, was arrested in June 2017 in Miami after Panama requested his extradition on charges that he had used public money to spy on more than 150 political rivals during his 2009-2014 administration.

Martinelli has maintained his innocence and said he is a victim of political persecution by current president Juan Carlos Varela, who previously served as his vice president.

Panamanian authorities said Martinelli was extradited at 8:44 a.m. (1344 GMT). They did not give details of his arrival, but dozens of Martinelli’s supporters gathered at the Tocumen international airport, waving flags of the political party the former president founded, local television footage showed.

Panamanian authorities said Martinelli will be held at the Renacer prison outside Panama City.

In a hearing after arriving in Panama, a judge refused to grant Martinelli’s request to avoid prison while he awaits trial, but said he would be given a medical test to determine his health.

During the hearing, Martinelli said he had serious heart problems, depression and possibly prostate cancer, which meant he should spend the time awaiting trial in a private hospital.

Martinelli attorney Roniel Ortiz did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Deputy foreign minister Luis Hincapie said Panama had also asked the United States to extradite Martinelli’s sons, Ricardo and Luis.

Panamanian prosecutors in November accused the two of receiving $49 million from Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht while their father was president. Last year, Odebrecht agreed to pay $220 million in fines to Panama and to co-operate with probes into bribes paid to Panamanian officials.

Hincapie told Panamanian television the extradition request for Martinelli’s sons was sent “some weeks ago.”

Reporting by Elida Moreno; Writing by Julia Love; Editing by Sandra Maler, Rosalba O’Brien and Michael Perry