June 16, 2019
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Panamanian court orders release of jailed ex-President Martinelli

Panama City, Jun 12 (efe-epa).- A Panamanian court on Wednesday ordered the release of former President Ricardo Martinelli, who is charged with spying on political opponents and illicit enrichment, placing him under house arrest and ordering the former head of state to not leave the country.

"He has been placed under house arrest during the trial, must not make statements to the media, is barred from leaving the country and must surrender his passport," one of the former president's attorneys, Alfredo Vallarino, told reporters outside the court.

Another of Martinelli's defense attorneys, Carlos Carrillo, said the former president would "now, immediately" leave El Renacer prison, located outside Panama City, where he was jailed on June 11, 2018.

The 67-year-old Martinelli, who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014, faces trial on charges that he spied on scores of opposition figures, as well as business leaders and journalists, and for illicit enrichment.

Martinelli left Panama on Jan. 28, 2015, when the Panamanian Supreme Court agreed to hear the first of several corruption cases against him.

The former president, who was detained in Miami on June 12, 2017, became the first former Panamanian head of state to be arrested abroad on an extradition request.

"Justice is slow, but it comes," Carrillo told the press, adding that the court's decision was "a first step on the correct path, that Martinelli's presumption of innocence not be violated."

Carrillo said the former president's defense team would appeal some of the conditions imposed by the court, including house arrest, that are "excessive."

The court administration confirmed on Twitter that both the defense and the prosecution were scheduled for an "appeal, which will be on June 14 at 10:00 a.m."

Martinelli, who reporters were able to see through the courtroom's outer doors, got emotional after learning of the court ruling.

The former president, who founded the opposition Democratic Change Party, was driven in a private vehicle straight to his house in an upscale Panama City neighborhood and was later seen outside with his dog, Martini.

Judges Roberto Tejeira, Arlene Caballero and Raul Vergara deliberated for 11 hours before agreeing to release the former president in response to a motion presented by defense attorneys on Tuesday.

Reporters waited outside the court all night, while Martinelli's relatives and supporters, as well as attorneys and prosecutors, spent the night in the courtroom.

The defense filed a motion for Martinelli's release on the grounds that Panamanian law prohibits authorities from holding someone in preventive detention for more than a year.

Prosecutor Ricaurte Gonzalez, for his part, told the court that the measures taken in the Martinelli case were "proportional to the continuing procedural risks," including flight risk.

The prosecution alleges that Martinelli would not have returned to Panama and had to be extradited from the United States, where he spent a year in prison fighting the effort to return him to his homeland.

Martinelli, for his part, contends that he is a victim of political persecution by former ally and successor Juan Carlos Varela.

The courts had denied five previous defense motions to allow Martinelli to leave jail.

Defense attorneys argued that the former president should be allowed to await trial under house arrest because he suffered from a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure.

If convicted on the four counts of spying, Martinelli, a supermarket magnate, could face up to 21 years in prison.

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