Ex-Panama president, shackled in Miami court, claims politics are behind his arrest

FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2015 file photo, Panama's former President Ricardo Martinelli answers questions during an interview at a hotel in Guatemala City.
FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2015 file photo, Panama's former President Ricardo Martinelli answers questions during an interview at a hotel in Guatemala City. AP

A former Panamanian president appeared in Miami federal court on Tuesday arguing that an effort to extradite him was part of a smear campaign by political foes to prevent him from seeking the nation’s top office again.

An attorney representing Ricardo Martinelli, who was arrested Monday night after living in Miami for the past two and a half years, challenged charges leveled by the Panamanian government that more than $13 million intended for a poverty program had been diverted to pay for a secret surveillance operation that Martinelli used to spy on his political opponents.

“It’s being instigated by his current opponent [Panamanian President Juan Carlos] Varela,” said Marcos Jimenez, Martinelli’s lawyer. Jimenez questioned the timing of the arrest on an extradition complaint, which he said came after Martinelli declared his intentions to run for a second presidential term.

Jimenez also asked that Martinelli be released on bond and placed under house arrest while awaiting a final decision by U.S. courts on Panama’s extradition request. He noted that Colombia’s former agriculture minister, Andrés Felipe Arias Leiva, now living in Weston, received a $1 million bond last year while fighting extradition on corruption charges in his homeland.

Jimenez also said the former Panamanian president suffers from poor health and is not a flight risk since he has been living openly in Miami.

“Detention is egregiously improper,” Jimenez, a former U.S. attorney, told a magistrate judge in a packed courtroom. The former president, who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014, appeared in court in a khaki jail uniform with his wrists and ankles shackled and looking unshaven.

Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres set a bond hearing for June 20 but cautioned that bail is “a pretty difficult thing to get” in extradition cases.

Martinelli was arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service on Monday around 6:30 p.m. near his home in Coral Gables, a spokesman for the agency’s district office in South Florida said.

The arrest was carried out on a provisional warrant issued by the U.S. Justice Department in response to an extradition request from Panama, where Martinelli faces charges related to allegations that he used public funds to spy on at least 150 people.

The former president is accused of intercepting and recording the private conversations of political allies and opponents, judges, journalists, businessmen, union activists, and even his mistress, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami, which cited Panama’s extradition request.

Martinelli “created and oversaw a sophisticated program” using national-security personnel and equipment purchased with public funds to carry out the surveillance, “learning intimate details” of the personal and professional lives of his targets, according to the complaint, which was unsealed after Martinelli’s arrest.

Martinelli has been charged in Panama with embezzlement, interception of communications, and tracking, persecution and surveillance without judicial authorization, the complaint says. The former president “secretly commandeered” Panama’s National Security Council and created a covert unit that spied on Martinelli’s targets from the top floor of a security-council building, according to the complaint.

The money used to pay for the surveillance system — about $13.4 million — had been allocated to a fund that was supposed to “improve the quality of life for underprivileged persons,” the complaint says. Instead, the funds bankrolled intelligence-gathering operations that produced daily reports for Martinelli and sometimes gleaned “particularly sensational audio or video,” including of political opponents having sex, that the complaint says Martinelli instructed security personnel to upload to YouTube.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Jimenez questioned the validity of Panama’s extradition request, stating that the extradition treaty between the United States and Panama does not cover the wiretapping charges he faces. The merits of Panama’s extradition request will be heard in federal court later this summer.

Martinelli has maintained that the allegations against him are politically motivated. In a statement issued Monday night, a spokesman for Martinelli said the extradition request is “running its normal course.”

“The United States is a democracy where the laws and rights of the people are respected,” said spokesman Luis Eduardo Camacho. “Former President Martinelli’s defense team is going to exercise the rights and guarantees enshrined in the rule of law.”

Martinelli fled to the United States in 2015 just days after his country’s Supreme Court opened an investigation into separate allegations that he had helped embezzle $45 million from a government school-lunch program. The former president initially settled in Atlantis, a luxury condominium tower on Miami’s Brickell Avenue.

Panama’s Supreme Court issued an order for Martinelli’s arrest in December 2015 after he failed to appear in court, according to the complaint. Panama asked the United States to extradite Martinelli last September; in May, the international police agency Interpol issued a so-called “red notice” for Martinelli’s arrest on charges of political espionage, according to Reuters.