Latin America

Ex-Panamanian president to stand trial on corruption charges

Ricardo Martinelli accused of misappropriating $45m from a school nutrition program

Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli arrives at the Central American Parliament in Guatemala.
Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli arrives at the Central American Parliament in Guatemala.Saúl Martínez (EFE)

Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli will have to stand trial on charges that he misappropriated around $45 million of public funds, the country’s Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

Martinelli, who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014, has now exhausted all his appeals after a special session of the top court upheld a January 28 ruling handed down by a panel of justices.

Since leaving office, Martinelli, a supermarket magnate, has been caught up in a series of corruption scandals that allegedly took place during his administration.

Martinelli accused President Juan Carlos Varela of “dominating the entire legal system”

The former president serves as leader of the opposition Democratic Change party, but court justices ordered the country’s Elections Tribunal to lift Martinelli’s congressional immunity from prosecution.

The investigation centers on cost overruns amounting to an additional $45 million in contracts that were awarded to purchase dehydrated food for public schools under the government’s National Aid Program.

Before learning about the court’s decision, Martinelli used his Twitter account on Monday to accuse his successor, President Juan Carlos Varela, of “dominating the entire legal system” in Panama.

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“He decides everything […] and I am sure that I will be unfairly prosecuted and hopefully after that Varela will get to work.”

In an interview with EL PAÍS following the initial January 28 ruling, Varela said that Martinelli “didn’t do things the right way” and that he should be put on trial. The president denied there was any truth to his predecessor’s accusations.

After the first decision, Martinelli unsuccessfully tried to win immunity from the Central American Parliament (Parlacen), based in Guatemala.

But Rafael Espada, the former Guatemalan president who now serves as Parlacen speaker, said that it was a false notion that the regional parliament could grant him immunity from prosecution in his own country.

“Martinelli has no immunity. If the Panamanian Congress won’t grant him immunity neither will we,” Espada said.

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