Can’t run out the calendar on this case
by Eric Jackson
Can the former president avoid a murder and forced disappearance investigation via a plea bargain? Perhaps plain old murder, but the case of Vernon Ramos, a securities analyst for the Securities Market Superintendency who disappeared while investigating financial crimes allegations against Ricardo Martinelli is different.
Reports in Panamanian and international media have it that key allies of jailed ex-president Ricardo Martinelli — attorney, former labor minister and wannabe party boss Alma Cortés and spokesperson Eduardo Camacho in particular — are indirectly trying to broker a deal in which Martinelli makes a plea bargain with an appointee of his, Supreme Court magistrate Harry Díaz. A deal limiting Martinelli’s exposure to prosecution here and dropping his objections to extradition from the United States is the reported goal. The case is before the Supreme Court because Martinelli is a member of the Central American Parliament and as such enjoys immunity from investigation and prosecution by the ordinary authorities. There are a number of cases pending against Martinelli in the high court, the most advanced of these being based on a small part of the former president’s electronic warfare game, the part in which he systematically spied on some 150 persons, reading their emails, listening to their phone calls and remotely turning their smart phones into bugs.
(One of the targets of that was attorney Miguel Antonio Bernal, with whom this reporter maintained phone contacts for reporting and legal and political discussions, so he intercepted conversations with the editor of The Panama News as well. All the hacking attacks of every Panamanian news website that Martinelli did not control, including The Panama News? Martinelli stole the government equipment that he used for hacking so the hard drives are unavailable for analysis, and folks like the US National Security Agency who would have a record of that have not shared it. None of that hacking is part of the case, but the theft of the equipment is and it puts jurisdiction over the case directly within the terms of the 1904 US-Panamanian extradition treaty.)
Camacho and Cortés, each facing corruption investigations against them, either can’t leave Panama under current bail restrictions or won’t be allowed into the United States because they are considered undesirable there, or both. The plea, said to have been made in a Cortés letter to Díaz, is for the judge to go to Miami, meet with Martinelli in jail, make the plea bargain there, and bring Martinelli back to Panama with enforceable guarantees. Generally the way that works is for a defendant to plead guilty to one charge in exchange for a bar on investigation or prosecution for all other cases against him or her.
But is that a problem for Martinelli, his backers and Díaz? Murder cases, of which enforced disappearances are now a species under Panamanian law, have no statute of limitations. Disappearance cases, under UN and OAS treaties to which Panama is a party, imply some special procedures. The United Nations treaty would bar any Panamanian legal maneuver that voids the Ramos family’s right to a remedy under the law. Under the Inter-American treaty Panama is pledged “to punish … those persons who commit or attempt to commit the crime of forced disappearance of persons and their accomplices and accessories….” The OAS treaty also provides that “criminal prosecution for the forced disappearance of persons and the penalty judicially imposed on its perpetrator shall not be subject to statutes of limitations” and that “privileges, immunities, or special dispensations shall not be admitted” in disappearance cases.
So, notwithstanding the law, might Ricardo Martinelli avoid the any potential exposure to the Ramos case via the simple fact that he appointed a majority of the Supreme Court magistrates and they in turn appointed many of the lower court judges? That might be expected, but after a change or two of administrations, or changes in the membership of the court, the law would allow for such an arrangement to be set aside.
If Díaz undertakes the sort of mission to Miami that Cortés and Camacho urge upon him, there he would likely face Martinelli’s battery of six US criminal defense lawyers. One might expect that this phalanx would be joined by one or more Panamanian lawyers. The team of American lawyers has so far been blown off as a tag-team that makes frivolous motions and is not expected to have any greater success in litigation to come, except that they might win further delays.
A problem for Martinelli is that while he has been locked up in the USA, his already unsteady control over his political party has slipped almost entirely out of his hands. He says that he wants to run for mayor of Panama City in 2019 and although it might be theoretically possible, getting elected from jail in Miami is fairly improbable. But if he makes a deal in which he pleads guilty to an unauthorized wiretap charge, gets, say, a one-month jail sentence commutable by fine and comes back, then all he would have to do is convince people to forget about his crimes. Except that amnesia about the Vernon Ramos case is a legal problem.
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