Rumors of plea bargain talks (and denials)
as the next phase of Martinelli’s trial looms
by Eric Jackson
Not long after Ricardo Martinelli left office in 2014 a laptop at the National Security Council was found to contain an enemies list of some 150 people and data about their telephone and computer communications that were forwarded to the Presidencia. This damning evidence of unwarranted electronic eavesdropping during the previous administration has been on the public record since that time. In other related cases it has been supported by dozens of witnesses. The equipment used to do this? The Israeli equipment and programs from Israel and Italy, and presumably the files compiled with these, have been missing since shortly before Martinelli left office. So far uncontroverted witnesses last place the stuff in the Martinelli’s private corporate headquarters for the Super 99 grocery store chain in Paitilla.
We knew early on during the Martinelli administration that such stuff was going on because private conversations were being recorded and made into YouTube attack videos directed against Martinelli’s critics. Perhaps the most notorious of these was made with a cell phone remotely switched on and turned into a room bug, which caught now legislator and presidential candidate Zulay Rodríguez in an argument with her then husband, who accused her of infidelity. It was quite the hit for YouTube voeyeurs.
We also know something of the circumstances thanks to Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, by way of US Embassy cables released via WikiLeaks. Those documented Martinelli’s attempts to get American assistance to bug his political foes.
That this invasion of privacy case is the first of the Martinelli crimes to make it to trial stage — and this reporter does not say “alleged” because so many of the illegal things that the former president did were sneeringly open and notorious — is probably not the mere luck of the draw, nor the date of discovery. Panamanian culture defends the privacy of prominent men in particular. While this country’s laws have never treated a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy as a matter of her right to privacy, we have had banking and corporate secrecy laws longer than almost anywhere else. There is no such thing as illegitimacy in Panamanian law and references to the marital status of a prominent person’s parents is considered obscene. The sexual affairs of some Panamanian political leaders have been more lurid than any Bill and Monica stories, but the Supreme Court here has ruled that satirical references to them are crimes and in Panamanian journalism such tales are absolutely taboo. We have a privacy culture here. That its egregious violation is the first Martinelli case to come to trial is a general reflection of how seriously such matters are taken here.
So, having cleared a slew of procedural objections to trial, the most recent and serious by a narrow vote of a high court panel, Martinelli is about to come to trial on the facts of the matter. If there is anything to be said on his behalf on that score, the public has not heard it.
The trial is set to resume on Thursday, July 26. Will more delays be interposed? Perhaps, but the court and Martinelli’s jailers are getting sick of the antics. From the defense side we have heard a complaint of the former president being placed in solitary confinement at El Renacer Penitentiary. That’s the global norm for what happens to an inmate who makes a fuss about being taken to court, who makes extravagant demands for luxury lodgings, or who malingers to delay trial proceedings.
NOW two new twists arise.
One is that Martinelli’s lawyers are bringing civil and criminal charges against Corporacion La Prensa, whose tabloid Mi Diario reported that there was an attempt to bring a Colombian woman into the prison to visit with Martinelli. It’s actually a strange set of denials, centered around the ex-president being elsewhere for medical attention when that allegedly happened. There does not appear to be a direct refutation of all points of what was written and complained of. It also seems to be not a calumnia e injuria case, but just an injuria complaint. The two words are generally used together to describe a defamation case, but they are actually two laws. Calumnia is malicious falsehood, while injuria is damage to a person’s reputation. Truth is not necessarily a defense to injuria. The published product of a gross invasion of privacy, for example, would be actionable injuria even if absolutely true. The courts will generally not entertain offers to prove the truth of the matter in such situations.
The other, more consequential matter is whether with a losing case confronting him and the prosecution asking for a 21-year prison sentence, a plea bargain is in the works. The court and prosecution are mum. From several of the private complainants there have been tales of meetings with Martinelli defense attorneys where the subject of a plea bargain has been broached. Martinelli has said that he would never plead guilty and some of his lawyers have been making less than categorical denials of any negotiations.
Ricardo Martinelli is famously bipolar and his mood swings have always been a factor in his public life. An abrupt shift in position would be in character for him, with his family and lawyers being such control factors as there may be.
We may see later this week.
[Full disclosure. Your reporter is one of the people whose communications Martinelli pried into, by way of the former president’s monitoring of communications with his attorney and sometimes contributor to The Panama News, Miguel Antonio Bernal.]