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Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli was sentenced to 10 years in prison for money laundering on Tuesday, raising questions about the popular politician’s bid for re-election next year.
The supermarket tycoon was found guilty of laundering money from public contracts through an elaborate scheme in order to buy out a media company, and was also ordered to pay a $19.2 million fine.
Martinelli said he believed the charges were politically motivated and his lawyers said on Tuesday he would appeal the decision.
Panama, which is set to be the fastest growing economy in Latin America this year, will hold general elections in May 2024. Martinelli, the other former president, Martin Torrijos and current vice president Jose Gabriel Carrizo, said they will run.
The vote will take place as the Financial Services and Logistics Center tries to shed its image as a haven for dirty money. It expects to be removed soon from the list of countries that are not doing enough to stop financial crime.
Martinelli, 71, who was president from 2009 to 2014, also faces separate charges related to bribery paid by Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. Martinelli still has a large support base, with a CID-Gallup poll in April putting him ahead of other candidates.
Two of his children were convicted in a US court in 2022 of laundering millions of dollars in kickbacks from Odebrecht, some of which US prosecutors said were spent on a yacht and an apartment in the US.
In January, the US government banned Martinelli and his immediate family from entering the US for engaging in “grand corruption” by accepting bribes to improperly award contracts while he was leader.
Martinelli left Panama for Florida shortly after leaving office, as investigations were under way into his conduct. In 2018, the United States extradited him to Panama on separate charges of illegally wiretapping his political and business rivals using Pegasus software made by the Israeli company NSO Group.
Martinelli’s lawyers said Tuesday that the conviction does not legally affect his candidacy, as he can still appeal. The constitution states that anyone who has been deliberately sentenced to more than five years in prison for a crime is ineligible for the presidency.
Incumbent President Laurentino Cortizo cannot run for a second consecutive term, but previous leaders are allowed two non-consecutive five-year terms.