Panama's Electoral Tribunal bans former President Martinelli's presidential candidacy

The former president was sentenced to 11 years in prison and fined $19 million for money laundering.

(AFP / VOZ MEDIA) The Electoral Tribunal of Panama banned the presidential candidacy of former President Ricardo Martinelli Monday, a month after he lost the last judicial appeal to avoid a sentence of almost 11 years in prison and took refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy.

The court decided to "disqualify Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Berrocal as a candidate for the position of president" of Panama, announced Magistrate Alfredo Juncá.

The decision is due to the fact that Martinelli has been "condemned for an intentional crime with a prison sentence of more than five years," added Juncá, head of the court.

Martinelli, who governed Panama between 2009 and 2014, aspired to return to power after the presidential elections on May 5.

However, in 2023 he was sentenced to almost 11 years in prison, and the Panamanian Constitution establishes that anyone who has been sentenced to five years or more in prison for an intentional crime cannot be elected president.

Although the fate of Martinelli, who has a warrant out for his arrest, was sealed a month ago after losing his last appeal before the Supreme Court, the conviction had to be finalized for the Electoral Tribunal to formally ban his candidacy.

The right-wing former president, 71 years old, is in asylum in the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama, where he requested asylum to the government of Daniel Ortega, who immediately granted it to him.

However, the Panamanian government refused to grant him safe travel to Nicaragua.

From the Nicaraguan embassy, Martinelli has given interviews and made political statements, which has infuriated Panamanian authorities, who have warned Nicaragua that they could take diplomatic measures.

'History will absolve me'

"I repeat, I am innocent," Martinelli said Monday before learning of the Electoral Tribunal's decision.

"This case was made to disqualify me politically and take me out of the political race, which is illegal," added the former president on X, formerly Twitter.

Martinelli was sentenced last July to serve 128 months in prison and pay a fine of $19 million for money laundering.

The Panamanian justice system convicted him for purchasing the majority of the shares of Editora Panamá América in 2010 with public funds.

For that acquisition, he used part of the $43.9 million in bribes that different companies gave to him through a complex scheme.

The money came from a commission of up to 10% of the amount of the original public work contracts, according to the court. The sentence was confirmed in October by an appeals court.

"Everything is known in the end, and history will absolve me," Martinelli wrote in his message on Monday, repeating the plea made by the late Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro during the trial against him after the failed assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953.

'Democracy or dictatorship?'

Martinelli, leader of the Realizando Metas (RM, the initials of his name) party, was one of eight candidates for president of the Central American country.

Despite his judicial setbacks, he was a favorite in the polls. Now, his former Minister of Security José Raúl Mulino will be the head of the ticket for the former president's party.

"Panamanians are going to have to choose between democracy and dictatorship" in the next elections, Luis Eduardo Camacho, member of RM and Martinelli's spokesman, told Telemetro, after learning of the decision from the Electoral Tribunal.

"The dictatorship and its candidates are going to be defeated," added Camacho in reference to the majority of Mulino's opponents.

Martinelli, a supermarket chain tycoon, won the 2009 elections with a strong platform against corruption and traditional politicians.

However, more than a dozen ministers and high-ranking officials from his administration were arrested for several corruption scandals.

The former president must face another trial this year for alleged laundering of bribes paid by the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.

In 2021, he was acquitted in another trial, which had to be repeated, for allegedly spying on opponents during his administration.