MIAMI (AP) — A former president of Panama should be extradited from the U.S. to face political espionage and embezzlement charges in his home country, a Miami federal judge ruled Thursday.
The 93-page ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres now goes to the State Department, which will ultimately decide if ex-President Ricardo Martinelli must return to Panama. The department has argued in court papers that it supports Martinelli’s extradition.
“After careful review of the evidence in the record, we are duty bound to find that the extradition request submitted by Panama satisfies all of the statutory requirements,” Torres wrote. “There is sufficient evidence to establish probable cause for all of the charges brought against (President) Martinelli.”
Martinelli, 65, was Panama’s president from 2009-2014. He is accused of illegally monitoring phone calls and other communications of at least 150 people using an extensive surveillance system. Martinelli is also accused of embezzlement of $13 million in public funds linked to the system, which operated from 2012-2014.
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The former president’s lawyers contended that an update to Panama’s extradition treaty with the U.S. did not apply to the former president, and that scant evidence supports the charges. They call his indictment a political vendetta, mounted by his opponents.
Martinelli has been held without bail since his arrest in June at his Miami-area home on Panama’s extradition request. He has been seeking political asylum in the U.S.
His attorneys claimed the extradition request runs counter to terms of an updated extradition treaty between the two countries involving cybercrimes that took effect in July 2014, after the alleged offenses were committed. They claim Panama’s original 1905 extradition treaty with the U.S. contains a clause saying it did not apply retroactively — and say the clause remains in effect today.
U.S. prosecutors insisted that the position of both the government of Panama and the U.S. State Department is that Martinelli can properly be extradited on both the illegal surveillance and the embezzlement charges. The original retroactivity provision, they said, does not apply to Martinelli’s case.
Torres sided with the prosecutors, finding that the updated treaty does cover the cybercrime allegations and that enough proof exists of embezzlement to let the Panama prosecution go forward.
“We find only that there are reasonable grounds to suppose him guilty of all or some of the offenses charged,” Torres wrote.
There is no direct appeal in U.S. courts on the decision. There is no immediate timetable on when Martinelli would return to Panama, assuming the State Department agrees with extradition.
Martinelli’s hearings have been held in the same Miami courthouse complex where another Panamanian president, Manuel Noriega, was tried and convicted of drug trafficking after the U.S. military invaded his country in 1989. Noriega served his sentence in a prison south of Miami, and died in May in Panama.
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