Panama’s ex-president holed up in Nicaragua’s embassy while judiciary orders his arrest


Panamanian authorities on Thursday ordered the arrest of former President Ricardo Martinelli, who has been holed up in the Nicaraguan Embassy since receiving political asylum from that country earlier this month.

A judge approved a requested change of Martinelli’s conditional release that had stood while he appealed his 10-year sentence for a money laundering conviction, the federal judiciary said. The Supreme Court denied Martinelli’s final appeal earlier this month, upholding his sentence and presumably ending his attempt at a political comeback.


The change was unlikely to immediately result in Martinelli’s arrest since he remained inside the Nicaraguan Embassy. The government has so far refused to allow Nicaragua to move Martinelli out of the country.

The judiciary said the request to change the status of Martinelli’s release reflected the flight risk he posed, among other factors.

The 71-year-old Martinelli, who governed in 2009-2014, remains the presidential candidate of his party though Panama’s constitution bars anyone sentenced to five years or more for a crime from holding elected office.

Electoral authorities have said they are only awaiting formal notification of the Supreme Court’s decision upholding his sentence to take action on his candidacy.

Panamas former President Ricardo Martinelli speaks to supporters during a campaign rally, in Panama City, Feb. 3, 2024. Panamanian authorities on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, ordered the arrest of Martinelli, who has been holed up in the Nicaraguan Embassy since receiving political asylum from that country earlier this month. (AP Photo/Agustin Herrera)

Martinelli was convicted last July of money laundering in a case dating back to 2017 and related to his 2010 purchase of a publishing company that owns national newspapers.

Prosecutors said companies that had won lucrative government contracts during Martinelli’s presidency funneled money to a front company that was then used to purchase the publisher. The transactions involved a complex series of foreign money transfers that came up to $43 million. The front company collecting the money was called “New Business.”

Martinelli was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison and fined $19 million. He has denied wrongdoing and maintains he was the victim of political persecution. An appeals court ratified the sentence in October.

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


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


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