Panama ex-president, accused of political espionage, arrested in Florida

(Reuters) - Fugitive former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, wanted by the Central American nation on charges of political espionage, was arrested by U.S. authorities on Monday near Miami, officials for the U.S. Marshals Service said.

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Martinelli was taken into custody without incident as he emerged from a home outside Miami on Monday evening, according to Manny Puri, assistant chief of the agency’s district office in Miami.

Puri said deputy marshals had placed the residence under surveillance and acted on a provisional arrest warrant issued by the U.S. Justice Department in response to a Panamanian request last September seeking Martinelli’s extradition.

Martinelli was transported to a federal detention center in Miami and was due to appear in U.S. District Court on Tuesday to face an extradition hearing, Puri said. The arrest warrant would remain under seal until then, he said.

Interpol also issued a notice for Martinelli’s arrest last month.

The former Panamanian leader is accused of using public money to spy illegally on more than 150 political rivals during his 2009-2014 term as president.

“The United States is a democracy where the laws and rights of citizens are respected. The defense team of ex-president Martinelli will exercise the guarantees afforded by the rule of law,” Martinelli’s spokesman, Luis Eduardo Camacho, said in a statement.

Martinelli, a supermarket tycoon, presided over an infrastructure boom and Latin America’s fastest economic growth in recent years, but his administration was tainted by allegations of corruption.

In response to Panama’s extradition request last year, he lashed out at the current government and described himself as a victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt.

Martinelli has denied any wrongdoing and said on Twitter last month that his successor, Juan Carlos Varela, was going after him to divert attention from his own problems.

Varela served as Martinelli’s vice president but they have sparred bitterly since the transfer of power.

Panama’s Supreme Court issued a warrant for Martinelli’s arrest in December 2015 after he failed to appear at a Panamanian court hearing on his case.

Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Elida Moreno in Panama City; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Michael Perry and Paul Tait