Former Panamanian president sentenced to over 10 years in prison for money laundering

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Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli was sentenced Tuesday to more than 10 years in prison for money laundering.

Martinelli, 71, had been trying to mount a political comeback in next year’s general elections, but a judge sentenced him to 128 months in prison in a case that revolved around the purchase of a media company.

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Martinelli’s lawyers said they would appeal, arguing again that the media company was purchased with the president’s own legally obtained funds. Martinelli is the first former president convicted of a crime in Panama.

The supermarket magnate who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014 was elected by his party last month as its presidential candidate for the May 5 election.

Since the verdict and sentence can be appealed, for the time being Martinelli can continue his campaign for the presidency. But once the conviction is upheld, his bid for a comeback would be over.

The case, known locally as “New Business,” dates back to 2017 and concerns the 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 totally $43 million. The front company collecting the money was called “New Business.”

In closing statements at trial in June, prosecutor Emeldo Márquez had requested the maximum sentence for Martinelli, which would have been 12 years.

The judge also fined Martinelli $19 million.

Four others were also convicted alongside Martinelli and sentenced from 60 to 96 months in prison. Ten others were acquitted.

Martinelli had denied wrongdoing and maintained that he was the victim of a political persecution.

Martinelli was a populist who oversaw a period of massive infrastructure projects in the country, including construction of the capital’s first metro line.

The former leader’s legal problems are not over either. He is expected to go on trial later this year for bribes paid by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to obtain public works projects in Panama.

Earlier this year, the United States government barred Martinelli and his immediate family from entering the country, based on his involvement in “significant” corruption.

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