HomeNewsBriefPanama Court Case Highlights Challenges of Political Immunity
BRIEF

Panama Court Case Highlights Challenges of Political Immunity

ELITES AND CRIME / 6 JAN 2016 BY MIKE LASUSA EN

Panama’s Supreme Court has denied a petition to suspend the immunity of a former president and current Central American Parliament (Parlacen) deputy, illustrating how powerful figures can use membership in political bodies as a judicial shield.

The court rejected a request from the legal team of former Ecuadorian Congressman Tito Galo Lara, who had sought to revoke the immunity maintained by former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli as a current member of Parlacen.

Lara fled to Panama in September 2013 after an Ecuadorian court convicted him of involvement in a triple murder. He received asylum from Martinelli’s government the following month. In May 2014, however, Lara’s asylum status was revoked when the Panamanian government claimed it had obtained information providing “full certainty of the existence of common crimes, not political persecution” against the former congressman. 

Panamanian authorities detained Lara in June 2014, and the Supreme Court approved his extradition to Ecuador in August of that year. But Lara fought the proceedings, claiming the Panamanian government, then headed by Martinelli, had accepted a $6 million payment from Ecuador in exchange for his extradition.

Lara’s legal team asked Panama’s high court to revoke Martinelli’s immunity as a Parlacen representative in order to compel the former president to testify, but the court found that lifting Martinelli’s immunity would have no effect on Lara’s case.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Supreme Court’s decision points to the challenges that come with attempting to prosecute powerful political figures accused of malfeasance while in office. Martinelli currently faces several other investigations stemming from his term as Panama’s president, including charges of corruption and illegal espionage. Panamanian officials have stripped Martinelli of his immunity with regards to certain charges, and the Parlacen has even previously stated Martinelli enjoys no immunity as a result of his position with the regional organization. And yet, prosecutors looking to bring the former president to court continue to be met with roadblocks. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Panama 

Even without immunity, Martinelli — like other wealthy and powerful figures — has other means of avoiding prosecution at his disposal.

Martinelli reportedly fled from Panama in January 2015 after the Supreme Court began investigating him, and according to several media reports, he now resides in an opulent Miami condominium. Martinelli is also reportedly seeking asylum in the United States, but the status of that request remains unclear. Panama’s high court ordered his detention last month. Still, as reported by the Panama News, what happens next for Martinelli “depends on a complex matrix revolving around laws and political wills” in both the United States and Panama. 

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