Federal Judge Orders ex-Panamanian President Extradited
A U.S. federal judge on Thursday approved the extradition of former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli to face embezzlement and illegal surveillance charges in his home country.
In a 93-page ruling, Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres, of the Southern District of Florida, agreed with the U.S. State Department’s argument in support of Mr. Martinelli’s extradition to Panama.
U.S. Marshals detained Mr. Martinelli in June after Interpol issued a “red notice” based on Panama’s request for extradition. At home, the former president faces four charges related to illegal surveillance of political opponents, allies, journalists and others by allegedly diverting US$13.4 million in public funds to purchase spying equipment.
Mr. Martinelli, 65, is a supermarket tycoon and presided over Latin America’s fastest economic growth during his presidency from 2009 to 2014. His administration, however, was tainted by allegations of graft. He fled the country in 2015 for Coral Gables, Florida, where he owns an oceanfront mansion.
“In sum, 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,” Judge Torres wrote. “There is sufficient evidence to establish probable cause for all of the charges brought against Pres. Martinelli.”
The accusations against Mr. Martinelli are extraditable crimes under a 1904 extradition treaty between the United States and Panama as well as the 2003 U.N. Convention Against Corruption and the 2004 Budapest Convention against cyber crimes, the judge ruled. Probably cause also exists for all four charges, he added.
Mr. Martinelli’s attorneys argued that the charges were the results of a politically motivated witch hunt led by current President Juan Carlos Varela, whom he had fired in 2011 as foreign minister. They also contested that Mr. Martinelli has immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes committed during his presidency. Judge Torres ruled that he does not enjoy immunity and that it was not in the court’s purview to determine immunity under Panamanian law.
The extradition process allows the courts to conduct only a “limited inquiry” to ensure fairness and protect the integrity of the judicial process, Judge Torres wrote. The process also does not weigh the merits of the case and only ensures there is enough evidence under existing treaties.
Judge Torres wrote:
In drawing this conclusion, we find only that there are reasonable grounds to suppose him guilty of all or some of the offenses charged. As a result, “good faith to the demanding government [in Panama] requires his surrender.”
The judge’s ruling certifies to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Mr. Martinelli is extraditable. The secretary of state then makes the ultimate decision on whether to surrender the fugitive and notifies the Panamanian government.
Defendants, like Mr. Martinelli, have limited options in extradition cases and cannot directly appeal the judge’s certification or the secretary of state’s decision. His legal team may petition the court for a writ of habeas corpus, which still may not stop his extradition without a court order staying the proceedings.