Panama ex-president found not guilty of political espionage

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A Panamanian court has cleared former President Ricardo Martinelli of political espionage during his administration and ordered him released from house arrest, though the judges are continuing an order barring him from leaving the country.

The three-judge panel declared Martinelli “not guilty” Friday of charges stemming from the purported spying on the communications of at least 150 people and of the alleged misuse of public funds to purchase the equipment to carry out the intercepts during his 2009-2014 administration.

The court’s decision said evidence presented by the prosecution as messages from cellphones had been given a rigorous technical analysis by experts. “The accusation is based on vague and ill-structured facts,” the ruling said.

As for the charge of misuse of state funds, the judges said the prosecution did not establish that Martinelli acquired the spying equipment or that it was in his possession.

The court also said Martinelli’s rights had been violated in the prosecution, saying as one example that his lawyers were not present during part of the investigation carried out by the Public Prosecution Service.

Prosecutors had been seeking a 21-year prison term. Martinelli declared his innocence.

The 67-year-old supermarket tycoon was extradited from Miami in 2018 to face trial in Panama. He initially was ordered held at El Renancer prison during the judicial proceedings, but the trial court transferred him to house arrest in June.

He was charged specifically with interception of communications without judicial authorization; monitoring, persecution and surveillance without judicial authorization; and improperly purchasing espionage equipment with state funds.

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