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Will Miami judge extradite Panama’s former president?

Miami federal judge must determine whether evidence provided by Panamanian authorities supports charges that the 65-year-old ex-President Ricardo Martinelli, above, orchestrated an espionage scheme against his rivals using a government-funded surveillance system.
Miami federal judge must determine whether evidence provided by Panamanian authorities supports charges that the 65-year-old ex-President Ricardo Martinelli, above, orchestrated an espionage scheme against his rivals using a government-funded surveillance system. File

Did former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli break the law when he directed an alleged spying mission against his political enemies?

Or is he merely a victim of the current Panamanian president's effort to bring him back from Miami to his homeland to face criminal charges?

A Miami federal judge who has already denied Martinell's bid for bond will hold an extradition hearing Thursday that is framed by these two questions. Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres must determine whether evidence provided by Panamanian authorities supports charges that the 65-year-old Martinelli orchestrated an espionage scheme against his rivals using a government-funded surveillance system. If Torres reaches that conclusion, the judge would likely grant Panama’s extradition request.

Martinelli, a wealthy businessman who served as president of Panama from 2009 to 20014, was living in the Miami area for two years before his arrest in June by federal marshals near his $8 million Coral Gables waterfront home. Ever since, the once-powerful Central American politician has been held at the Federal Detention Center in Miami. Last week, his defense team filed an emergency petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to consider his request for bond while he awaits possible extradition.

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 has been charged in Panama with embezzlement, interception of communications, and tracking, persecution and surveillance without judicial authorization, the complaint says.

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.

Martinelli’s defense team, however, claims the complaint is the vengeful handiwork of his political rival.

Lawyer Marcos Jimenez, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, has raised a host of defenses attacking Martinelli’s detention and the extradition request, claiming that as a former Panamanian president he has immunity, that there’s no basis for the charges and that the warrant for his arrest was flawed. He argued that Martinelli should be granted a bond and that Panama’s extradition complaint should be dismissed.

“The charges against [former] President Martinelli are transparently motivated by politics, as evidenced by the fact that he fired the sitting president of the country that is seeking his extradition,” Jimenez said in a court filing and to the magistrate judge. The lawyer noted that in 2011, Martinelli fired Juan Carlos Varela as foreign minister after learning that he was allegedly receiving kickbacks from foreign consulate officers.

Jimenez also cited a recent interview in Panama with one of the Martinelli case judges, who said on a scale of 1 to 10 that the independence of the Panamanian judiciary that approved the extradition charges would rate in the “negative numbers.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels, who is representing Panama’s extradition request for the former president, countered that the warrant for Martinelli’s arrest in Miami “functions in the Panamanian legal system as the warrant” for the criminal charges, concluding it was valid.

Under U.S. extradition law, the magistrate judge would have to find there is a factual and legal basis for Panama’s extradition request. The U.S. secretary of state would then weigh in on the extradition of Martinelli as a final step.

Martinelli, who has lived in the Miami area since 2015 and sought asylum in March, was arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service on June 12 near his Coral Gables home.

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