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Ex-Panama president, once living large in Miami, sent home to face corruption charges

President Obama and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli. (YouTube Screenshot/ The Obama White House)

Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli ran out of moves Monday to block his extradition on politically linked charges to Panama.

Martinelli, 66, who had been jailed in the Miami detention center since his arrest a year ago, was extradited to his homeland after he recently dropped his appeal of a federal judge’s approval of Panama’s extradition request and made one last pitch to the U.S. State Department, to no avail.

The department, which had final say, concurred with the Miami magistrate judge’s decision. It was based on an amended century-old extradition treaty between the United States and Panama that the judge found applied to the charges against Martinelli.

“Our office is committed to upholding the rule of law and ensuring that justice is appropriately carried out for all parties,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg said in a joint statement with the Justice Department. “Because of Panama’s partnership with the United States, Martinelli has been returned to Panama.”

Martinelli is accused of illegally orchestrating a spying mission against his political rivals while using a government-funded surveillance system during his tenure as president, from2009-14.

Martinelli, a wealthy man who had been living in an $8 million waterfront estate in Coral Gables after leaving Panama, deployed a team of attorneys in an attempt to block his extradition. They argued he committed no wrongdoing and that the extradition treaty did not apply to charges that were instigated by the administration of his main political rival, President Juan Carlos Varela.

“He lost confidence in the U.S. justice system and decided he would rather return to Panama than continue his appeal of the extradition order,” said one of Martinelli’s lawyers, Marcos Jimenez, a former U.S. attorney in Miami.

Last August, Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres sealed Martinelli’s fate after a series of hearings 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 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.” The judge found Panama’s extradition request as well as its arrest warrant legally “sufficient” in his 93-page order.

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.

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© 2018 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.