Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli was sentenced to 10 years in prison for money laundering, putting him closer than ever to facing justice after years of avoiding charges for the numerous corruption allegations he faces.
The decision was handed down on July 18 by a judge of the First Judicial Circuit of Panama (Primer Circuito Judicial de Panamá) who imposed a 128-month prison sentence and $19 million fine on the former president.
Martinelli’s sentence was part of the “New Business” case, in which the former president allegedly purchased shares of media conglomerate Editora Panamá América using embezzled state funds. His lawyers have announced they plan to appeal the decision, a process that could take months.
Martinelli has vehemently denied involvement in the scheme, claiming that political rivals are behind the charges.
“We all know that they want to convict me for political interests. I am innocent. All the money I contributed is legal and has been proven,” the former president said in a video posted to his Twitter account in response to the verdict.
“I have no relation whatsoever with illicit money.”
Widely heralded for economic growth during his administration from 2009 to 2014, Martinelli is once again at the forefront of Panama’s political scene as a frontrunner in presidential elections scheduled for May 2024.
Despite the sentencing, Martinelli’s legal team announced that his presidential campaign will continue as the appeals process plays out.
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Martinelli’s sentencing marks concrete progress in Panama’s struggle against corruption that has reached the highest levels of politics and plagued the country for decades.
The former president has faced numerous allegations of embezzlement, graft, and bribery over the course of his political career but has never previously been convicted. Shortly after his presidency, Martinelli and members of his administration were accused of accepting bribes in return for awarding state contracts.
In 2021, Martinelli was arrested in the United States for using Pegasus spyware technology to spy on political opponents. After being extradited to Panama, he was acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence.
Two of his sons were also sentenced in the United States in 2021 for their involvement in the Odebrecht scandal, in which the giant Brazilian construction firm paid off officials across Latin American and the Caribbean in exchange for business favors. Upon their release and deportation to Panama this year, the United States designated Martinelli for “involvement in significant corruption” and banned him from entering the country.
International pressure has forced Panama to double down on prosecution of high-level corruption and increase transparency in the financial sector to ensure the survival of the economy, which is heavily reliant on international trade.
“Sensible Panamanians have realized that they needed to make real efforts at creating a much more transparent economic model, and part of that has been the judicial system,” Orlando J. Pérez, dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of North Texas at Dallas, told InSight Crime.
Martinelli’s sentencing is a key example of this anti-impunity approach, as is the ongoing prosecution of former president Juan Carlos Varela, a political rival of Martinelli who held office from 2014 to 2019. In 2020, Varela was indicted for involvement in bribery schemes related to Odebrecht. He currently awaits trial.
With Martinelli’s sentencing, however, comes significant risk.
Martinelli’s legal team will likely draw out the appeal process, meaning that he could win the presidential election before the case’s conclusion. A sentenced money launderer winning the presidency would be a huge symbolic setback in the country’s anti-corruption fight.
“I think for Panama, it would be a complete disaster,” Pérez told InSight Crime, adding that a Martinelli victory would amount to “a complete reversal of everything that they've gained in terms of anti-corruption policies in the last five years.”