Ex-Panamanian leader could be sent home to face charges. A Miami judge will decide

A former Panamanian president will learn at the end of August whether he will be sent from Miami to his homeland to face charges that he illegally orchestrated a spying mission against his rivals while using a government-funded surveillance system.

Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres set the Aug. 31 deadline for his decision on the fate of 65-year-old Ricardo Martinelli after a final hearing Wednesday on Panama’s extradition request.

Martinelli, a wealthy businessman who served as president of Panama from 2009-14, was living in the Miami area for two years before his arrest in June by federal marshals near his $8 million Coral Gables waterfront home. Ever since, the once-powerful Central American politician has been held at the Federal Detention Center in Miami.

The former president is accused of intercepting and recording the private conversations of political opponents and allies, along with judges, journalists, businessmen, union activists and even his mistress, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami, which cited Panama’s extradition request.

Martinelli has been charged in Panama with interception of communications, and tracking, persecution and surveillance without judicial authorization, along with two additional embezzlement offenses, the complaint says.

The money used to pay for the surveillance system — about $13.4 million — had been allocated to a fund that was supposed to “improve the quality of life for underprivileged persons,” the complaint says. Instead, the funds bankrolled the purchase of two surveillance systems — one targeting personal computers, the other cellphones — for intelligence-gathering operations directed by Martinelli, the complaint says. Daily reports included “particularly sensational audio or video” of political opponents having sex that the complaint says Martinelli instructed security personnel to upload to YouTube.

Lawyer Marcos Jimenez, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, argued Wednesday that the case against Martinelli has been pushed by his political rival, Panama’s current president, Juan Carlos Varela, whom he had fired as foreign minister in 2011.

Jimenez zeroed in on the two main surveillance charges, saying they were not among the 13 criminal offenses listed in the original 1904 U.S.-Panama extradition treaty. He also said the two embezzlement counts were tacked on after Panamanian prosecutors realized their surveillance case was flawed.

On a critical technical point, Jimenez argued that an international treaty adopted in July 2014 by Panama added the surveillance charges to its list of extradition offenses. But he asserted that the updated treaty was not retroactive and therefore the surveillance charges should not apply to Martinelli’s extradition case. Technically, he said, the ex-president’s alleged misconduct occurred before Panama adopted the new treaty.

Panama’s original extradition treaty says that “when offenses are added, they are not to be applied retroactively,” Jimenez told the judge.

Federal prosecutor Adam Fels, who is representing Panama’s extradition request, countered that Martinelli’s defense attorney misinterpreted the original treaty. Fels argued that the updated treaty was retroactive and permitted Martinelli’s extradition based on the surveillance charges.