MIAMI — A federal judge said Wednesday he will decide Aug. 31 whether a former president of Panama should be extradited from the U.S. to his home country to face political espionage charges that he calls a vendetta by opponents.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres made the announcement at a hearing Wednesday for Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s president from 2009-2014.
Martinelli, 65, was arrested in June at his Miami-area home on Panama’s extradition request and is being held without bail. He’s accused in an October 2015 indictment in Panama of illegally monitoring telephone and other communications of at least 150 people using an extensive surveillance system. He’s also charged with embezzlement of $13 million in public funds linked to the surveillance system, which operated from 2012 to 2014.
The former president has denied wrongdoing, and calls the charges an attempt at political payback.
“This is a political hack job,” his lawyer, Marcos Jimenez, told the judge. “To send someone back to that just shocks the conscience.”
Martinelli’s lawyers also contend that Panama’s request is based on slim evidence, and goes against the terms of an updated extradition treaty between the two countries involving cybercrimes that took effect in July 2014, after the alleged offenses were committed. They claim Panama’s original 1905 extradition treaty with the U.S. contains a clause saying it did not apply retroactively — and say the clause remains in effect today.
“It has never been changed or modified,” Jimenez said. “The treaty is not to be applied retroactively. The treaty language is very clear.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels, however, said the position of both the government of Panama and the U.S. State Department is that Martinelli can properly be extradited on both the illegal surveillance and the embezzlement charges. Fels said the original treaty was not intended to extend the retroactivity provision into the future forever.
“The time the treaty can’t be retroactive is only the time the treaty took effect in 1905,” he said. “Retroactivity simply doesn’t apply.”
Once Torres rules, the case will go to the State Department for a final decision on whether Martinelli will be sent back to Panama. Martinelli has lived in the U.S. for nearly two years and is seeking political asylum here.
Martinelli, in chains and wearing standard tan prison garb, did not speak at the hearing and spent much of his time writing notes on a yellow legal pad.
His hearing was held in the same Miami courthouse complex where another Panamanian president, Manuel Noriega, was tried and convicted of drug trafficking after the U.S. military invaded his country in 1989. Noriega served his sentence in a prison south of Miami, and died in May in Panama.
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