New trial for Martinelli on reinstated illegal spying charges

Martinelli, who is en route to putting his new RM (Realizando Metas) party on the ballot, reacted on Twitter to the news of the renewed charges by making light of the situation: “Today I knew that I will be the president of Panama in 2024. Without struggles there are no victories.” Photo of the ex-president and entourage from his Twitter feed.

Ricardo Martinelli to be tried again for eavesdropping without a warrant

by Eric Jackson

On November 20, another twist in a long-running case. In a three-hour online hearing a three-member Court of Appeals panel heard arguments from various lawyers, most notably senior organized crime prosecutor Ricaurte González, about whether an August 2019 trial court acquittal of the former president on eavesdropping and theft charges could stand. The 2-1 decision was that the ruling rejecting the spying charges was declared null, while the acquittal on the theft charges was upheld.

There will be a new trial for the warrantless surveillance of some 150 political rivals, purported allies at the time, journalists, attorneys, activists and leaders of non-governmental organizations. Those victims’ names and some of the details of their communications with others were found in a file on a National Security Council laptop that was seized in a raid on a former security director. The surveillance also inherently intercepted the emails and phone calls of others with whom those on the list of those under watch held electronic communications.

The Israeli Pegasus system that Martinelli use also has the capability of turning a laptop or cell phone that to its user is apparently turned off into a live room bug, useful for making video or audio recordings. The most notorious of these surreptitious files was a recording of a domestic argument involving then former judge and now legislator Zulay Rodríguez and her husband at the time, which was published on YouTube. Prosecutors under the Varela and Cortizo administrations have steadfastly blocked access to the invaded third parties in all of the information about themselves and thus blocked and redress for the invasions of OUR privacy. (This reporter had electronic communications with at least two people on the list of 150 surveillance targets.)

The equipment used, which was loaded with the Pegasus software, was last seen by someone who would talk about it in one of Ricardo Martinelli’s business offices. It has never been recovered. Has is been used since his presidency? Did it have anything to do with the intercepted WhatsApp communications of his successor, Juan Carlos Varela? The appeals court didn’t get into those matters, limiting itself to upholding the trial court’s finding that allegations that Martinelli personally stole the items in question wasn’t supported by sufficient proof.

Last year’s “not guilty” verdicts caused a storm of criticism. Since then they have added to the political instability inherent in the widespread belief that the justice system is absolutely corrupted. That popular belief will not dissipate anytime soon, but the trial court acquittal was particularly scurrilous.

In the long and winding procedural route to the trial, the Supreme Court, which had held original jurisdiction and conducted much of the investigation before remanding the case to an ordinary trial court, attached its investigative files as part of the body of evidence. But the trial court threw out all such evidence that the high court sent down with the case, contriving a novel procedural rationale to override a higher court’s order. This was the main fault on which the appeals court based its decision to nullify the acquittal on the eavesdropping charges.

That decision was the subject of two major appeals to higher courts, one set of which was thrown out on procedural ground, the other which went to the Supreme Court’s penal bench, which remanded it to the Court of Appeals. That latter court’s nullification of the acquittal remands the matter to a new trial court, with an order that none of the judges who dealt with the case below may participate in the new trial.

No date has been set for the new trial. It would be unlikely before January. But prosecutors are expected to be in court this week to ask for measures to prevent Martinelli’s flight to avoid prosecution. (He already did that once, which culminated in long extradition proceeding in the United States, where he took up residence in Miami.)

In the now mostly nullified trial that included both warrantless eavesdropping and theft charges, prosecutors had asked for a 21-year prison sentence. Shorn of the theft charges the case still could result in years of imprisonment and enough years of suspended political rights to prevent a 2024 presidential run by the now 68-year-old Martinelli. Depending on what prosecutors request and a judge grants, the former president might be heade back to jail for preventive detention of may just be barred from leaving the country.


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