Nation & World

Miami judge orders ex-Panamanian president sent home to face criminal charges

In this Jan. 28, 2015 file photo, Panama's former President Ricardo Martinelli answers questions during an interview at a hotel in Guatemala City.
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 federal judge on Thursday ordered the extradition of a former Panamanian president from Miami to his homeland to face charges that he illegally orchestrated a spying mission against his rivals while using a government-funded surveillance system.

Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres decided the fate of 65-year-old Ricardo Martinelli after a series of hearings this summer in which opposing sides argued over the technical details of Panama’s extradition treaty as well as the due process rights of the former president and his politically fraught case.

The judge’s order touched upon all of these issues but zeroed in on the “most contested” dispute —the meaning of Panama’s treaty, adopted in 1904, then amended in 2014 — and whether it applied retroactively to the main surveillance charges against Martinelli.

His lawyers argued the amended treaty did not apply retroactively, and therefore he should not be extradited. The U.S. attorney’s office, representing Panama, countered that the treaty did apply and therefore he should be sent home to be tried on the criminal charges.

Torres sided with the U.S. attorney’s office, saying “we hold that the alleged surveillance crimes are incorporated into the treaty and [it] does not bar the government from seeking Pres. Martinelli’s extradition.”

Ultimately, the judge found Panama’s extradition request as well as its arrest warrant legally “sufficient” in his 93-page order. “In drawing this conclusion, we find only that there are reasonable grounds to suppose him guilty of all or some of the offenses charged,” Torres wrote.

The U.S. Department of State also must consider the extradition matter. In court filings, the department expressed support for extradition, saying Panama’s treaty with the United States allows for Martinelli to be sent home on the surveillance charges.

Martinelli’s bid to stop his extradition, however, is not over. His team of lawyers plan to appeal with a U.S. District Court judge in Miami. Separately, the former president has a pending U.S. asylum petition that has not been resolved.

Martinelli, a wealthy businessman who served as president of Panama from 2009-14, 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.

The former president is accused of intercepting and recording the private conversations of political opponents and allies, along with 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 interception of communications, and tracking, persecution and surveillance without judicial authorization, along with two additional embezzlement offenses, the complaint says. He failed to appear in Panama to face these charges in late 2015.

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 the purchase of two surveillance systems — one targeting personal computers, the other cellphones — for intelligence-gathering operations directed by Martinelli, the complaint says. Daily reports included “particularly sensational audio or video” of political opponents having sex that the complaint says Martinelli instructed security personnel to upload to YouTube.

Lawyer Marcos Jimenez, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, argued at hearings in August that the case against Martinelli has been pushed by his political rival, Panama’s current president, Juan Carlos Varela, whom he had fired as foreign minister in 2011.

But the crux of the extradition came down to the Miami judge’s interpretation of Panama’s extradition treaty with the United States.

Jimenez focused on the two main surveillance charges, saying they were not among the 13 criminal offenses listed in the original 1904 extradition treaty. He also said the two embezzlement counts were tacked on after Panamanian prosecutors realized their surveillance case was flawed.

On the critical technical point, Jimenez argued that an international treaty adopted in July 2014 by Panama added the surveillance charges to its list of extradition offenses. But he asserted that Panama’s amended treaty was not retroactive and therefore the surveillance charges should not apply to Martinelli’s extradition case. Technically, he said, the ex-president’s alleged misconduct occurred before Panama adopted the amended treaty.

Federal prosecutor Adam Fels, who represented Panama in its extradition request, countered that Martinelli’s defense attorney misinterpreted Panama’s treaty. Fels argued that the amended treaty was retroactive back to the original date and permitted Martinelli’s extradition on the surveillance charges.