U.S. prosecutors urge judge to deny Martinelli extradition

MIAMI (Reuters) - U.S. federal prosecutors on Tuesday urged a judge not to allow former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli to go free on bond as he fights extradition to his home country, saying he is a flight risk.

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Attorneys for Martinelli, who has denied Panamanian prosecutors’ accusation that he used public money to spy on more than 150 political rivals during his 2009-14 term, said he has lived openly in the United States for the past two years and has no plans to flee.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres said he is likely to decide within a week whether to release Martinelli, 65, who is being held in federal detention in Miami at the request of the Panamanian government.

U.S. prosecutors have said they are fulfilling a treaty obligation with Panama in requesting that Martinelli, who was arrested on June 12, continue to be held.

“His past behavior suggests he would do whatever is necessary to avoid returning to Panama, including jumping bond to a third country,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels. “He has a massive amount of wealth that could sustain an escape to a third country where he and his family could stay in exile for decades.”

Martinelli’s attorneys argued their client is the target of a politically motivated prosecution by his successor, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela.

Martinelli’s attorney, Marcus Jimenez, pointed out the former president was arrested a week before Varela met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday.

He argued Martinelli is being targeted as a result of a “personal vendetta” by Varela, who was Martinelli’s vice president. Last month, Martinelli said on Twitter that Varela was going after him to divert attention from his own problems.

“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 brought by Panama.

Martinelli’s legal team has submitted a bond proposal for $5 million, GPS monitoring of the former president, keys to his airplane, two helicopters, and various boats.

Additional reporting and writing by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott