Panama ex-president Martinelli acquitted of espionage, corruption

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Panama's former president Ricardo Martinelli leaves court after being acquitted in Panama City

Panama's former president Ricardo Martinelli leaves court after being acquitted in Panama City (AFP Photo/Mauricio VALENZUELA)

Panama City (AFP) - Panama's ex-president Ricardo Martinelli was acquitted on charges of spying on political foes and misappropriation of public funds in a court decision Friday.

The case marked the first time a Panamanian former president was tried in criminal court.

The 67-year-old supermarket tycoon was accused of spying on some 150 opponents between 2012 and 2014 as well as using state resources in the pursuit, including $13 million in equipment which subsequently disappeared.

Martinelli "is found not guilty," said Raul Vergara, one of three judges on the tribunal.

Shouts of joy from Martinelli's supporters rang out in the courtroom after the verdict was read.

"Thank you to my lawyers, thank you to the Panama authorities, this was a criminal conspiracy," Martinelli told journalists and supporters.

After his release, Martinelli held a small party at one of his luxurious properties.

Martinelli -- who was president from 2009-14 and fled to Miami in 2015 to avoid arrest -- claims he was a victim of political persecution by the government of his successor Juan Carlos Varela, a former political ally.

Prosecutors had asked for an "exemplary" sentence of 21 years to set a precedent for corruption cases in Panama.

The sentence would be justified due to the former leader's rank when the alleged offenses took place, prosecutor Ricaurte Gonzalez said.

Martinelli was also accused of helping embezzle $45 million from a government school lunch program.

He was extradited from the United States in June 2018 and held for a year in pre-trial detention before he was released to house arrest two months ago.