Panama’s ex-president gets second acquittal in phone-tapping case

Ricardo Martinelli was accused of wiretapping more than 150 people, including politicians and journalists.

Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli celebrates after he was found not guilty in an espionage trial in Panama City on November 9 [Luis Acosta/AFP]

Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has been acquitted on charges he tapped the phones of political opponents and journalists when he was in power.

Martinelli, who served as president from 2009 to 2014, went on trial in July after he was acquitted of similar charges in 2019.

He was also accused of embezzling public funds to spy on his opponents when he led the country, and the prosecution accused him of wiretapping more than 150 people, including politicians and journalists.

But the court ruled on Tuesday that the prosecution’s evidence against Martinelli was insufficient.

“Justice, finally, was applied,” the 69 year old said as he left the court. “Seven years of this torture. I thank God and the Panamanian justice system. I suffered a lot.”

Carlos Herrera Moran, a lawyer for one of the victims of the alleged wiretapping, said the decision was “outside the law and the evidence presented”.

Martinelli was extradited from the United States in 2018 to stand trial in Panama.

In August 2019, he was acquitted on espionage and embezzlement charges and released from custody. The court found that prosecutors had violated due process after a five-month trial and also criticised the prosecution’s evidence.

But the Panamanian government won on appeal, arguing there were sufficient elements for a new trial, which started in July.

As president, Martinelli allegedly spent millions of dollars on sophisticated spying equipment from Israel, including the spyware Pegasus.

NSO Group, the Israeli firm behind that spyware, has faced renewed scrutiny in recent weeks after an investigation by international media outlets revealed Pegasus was used by security forces and authoritarian governments in several countries.

US President Joe Biden’s administration also sanctioned NSO Group last week, accusing the Israeli company of enabling “transnational repression” with its spyware.

NSO Group has rejected the criticism, saying its products aim to help authorities combat criminals and “terrorists”.

Martinelli, the owner of a supermarket chain, has hopes of running again for the presidency in 2024. He has described the charges against him as political persecution and an attempt to stop him from running again.

He rose to the presidency in 2009 after winning an election campaign in which he gave a speech denouncing corruption and the country’s political class.

He was later named in the “Pandora Papers” investigation into the creation of offshore shell companies meant to hide money in tax havens, but denied involvement in anything untoward.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies