PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama’s top court on Monday ordered the detention of former President Ricardo Martinelli who is alleged to have used public money to spy on more than 150 people illegally, one of several accusations he faces.
After more than four hours deliberating, Supreme Court judges voted for the provisional detention of the multimillionaire supermarket tycoon who ruled the Central American country from 2009 to 2014.
Martinelli responded to the ruling on his Twitter feed late on Monday, saying this was the first round of a political trial.
Martinelli, who oversaw a public works boom and Latin America’s fastest economic growth in recent years, fled Panama in January and is believed to be living in Miami.
Despite his initial popularity, his administration was tainted by allegations of corruption.
He now faces half a dozen different investigations including into alleged misuse of public funds, financial crimes, taking bribes and giving illegal pardons. He was stripped of the immunity he enjoys as head of a political party in several cases.
In the spying case, prosecutors say that Martinelli, 63, used taxpayer money and government employees to listen to calls, read messages and have activists, politicians, union members, lawyers, doctors and other civil groups followed.
Two of Martinelli’s former security chiefs have been arrested in the case and are awaiting trial.
In a letter posted on his Twitter feed this month, Martinelli said the accusations against him are part of a revenge campaign spearheaded by current President Juan Carlos Varela.
Varela, of the center-right Panamenista Party (PP), helped Martinelli win the presidency in 2009 before the two fell out.
Defense lawyer Rogelio Cruz said in October Martinelli was innocent of all charges, describing a provisional indictment as “crazy” and calling the process against him “Kafkaesque.”
Neither the court nor prosecutors gave details on how Martinelli’s detention would be sought, given that he has not been seen in Panama for months.
Writing by Christine Murray; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Robert Birsel