Panama blocks ex-President Martinelli from election

Tribunal disqualifies Martinelli’s candidacy over 10-year prison sentence for money laundering last year.

Panama's former President Ricardo Martinelli
Panama's former President Ricardo Martinelli has denied wrongdoing and maintains he is the victim of political persecution [Fie: Aris Martinez/Reuters]

Panama’s Electoral Tribunal has annulled the candidacy of former President Ricardo Martinelli in the presidential election set for May.

The decision, announced late on Monday by the body’s president Alfredo Junca, appears to end Martinelli’s hopes of re-election. It comes a month after the former leader lost a bid to avoid a prison sentence for corruption and took asylum in the Nicaraguan embassy.

Martinelli served as president from 2009 to 2014. Last year he was found guilty of using stolen public money to buy a stake in a publishing house. The 71-year-old supermarket tycoon was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison and given a $19m fine.

Last month, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal against his sentence. Martinelli blasted that ruling as an “illegal last-minute move” to remove him from the presidential race.

The finalisation of his conviction allowed the Electoral Tribunal to annul his candidacy. Panama’s constitution bars anyone sentenced to five years or more for a crime from holding elected office.

Before the annulment, most polls had positioned Martinelli as the favourite to win May’s election. His running mate, former Foreign Minister Jose Raul Mulino, was authorised by the tribunal to continue alone on the ballot as a presidential candidate.

Martinelli, who was also disqualified from running for a legislative seat, has denied wrongdoing and maintains he is the victim of political persecution.

A millionaire businessman when he became president, Martinelli has been investigated for multiple corruption scandals since leaving office.

In 2021, he was acquitted on charges of espionage and embezzlement of public funds.

He faces a separate trial, scheduled for after the May 5 elections, over alleged bribery payments during his presidency from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht for public works projects in Panama.

A populist who oversaw a period of big infrastructure projects, including the construction of the capital’s first subway line, Martinelli is the first former president convicted of a crime in Panama.

Last year, the US government barred Martinelli and his immediate family from entering that country, based on what it called his involvement in “significant” corruption.

Source: News Agencies