The dictatorship of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua granted asylum on February 7th to the former president of Panama (2009-2014) and current presidential candidate Ricardo Martinelli, who was sentenced to more than ten years in prison and fined over 19 million dollars for money laundering. It was the first sentence of its kind in the democratic history of the Central American country.
“In accordance with the 1928 Asylum Convention and the 1933 Political Asylum Convention, ratified by our country, and recognizing that asylum is a humanitarian institution and that all persons may be under its protection, regardless of nationality,” Nicaragua decided to “grant asylum to Mr. Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Berrocal, former president of the Republic of Panama,” the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
According to the Ortega regime, Ricardo Martinelli, 71, sought asylum at the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama, “considering himself persecuted for political reasons and being in imminent danger to his life, physical integrity, and security.”
“He is inside the embassy,” Martinelli’s spokesperson Luis Eduardo Camacho told journalists outside the Nicaraguan diplomatic headquarters.
“If anyone had any doubts that Ricardo Martinelli was political persecuted, they no longer have reason to doubt, and now what needs to be seen is whether the Government of (Laurentino) Cortizo grants the safe conduct for his departure (…) or if his desire to kill Ricardo Martinelli is more important,” said Camacho.
According to the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry statement, the Ortega regime requested the Panamanian government to “provide assurances for the prompt departure and humanitarian transfer of Martinelli” to Nicaragua.
Nicaragua, a haven for fugitives from justice
Ricardo Martinelli joins a list of more than 130 political allies and fugitives from justice who have found a hiding place in Nicaragua and, in most cases, obtained Nicaraguan nationality to avoid extradition. Several naturalization processes were carried out in breach of Nicaraguan immigration laws, according to an analysis by CONFIDENCIAL. Among these new Nicaraguans are two former Salvadoran presidents, former Honduran and Guatemalan officials, Russian scientists, and allied diplomats.
One of the most well-known cases is that of former El Salvador President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), whom Ortega granted political asylum in 2016, while he was being sought by Salvadoran justice for alleged embezzlement of 351 million dollars and payment of bribes.
Faced with the threat of extradition by the current Salvadoran president, Nayib Bukele, Ortega naturalized Funes, his wife, and two of his children on July 30, 2019. Additionally, he was given a position in the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry, earning a monthly salary of $2,739 dollars.
Another fugitive ex-president hiding in Nicaragua is Salvador Sanchez Ceren from El Salvador (2014-2019). He is wanted in El Salvador for the crimes of illicit enrichment and money laundering. The former guerrilla fighter was naturalized Nicaraguan on July 30, 2021. His wife, Rosa Margarita Villalta; his daughter, Claudia Lissette Sanchez Villalta, and his grandson Juan Carlos Guardado Sanchez, who is also involved in a corruption case, have also been naturalized.
Conviction against Ricardo Martinelli upheld
Martinelli declared himself “politically persecuted” on Saturday, February 3, a day after his conviction was upheld. He claimed without evidence that “evil forces seek” to disqualify him from the elections next May 5, in which he aspires to the presidency for his new party, Realizando Metas. He has been leading in the few available polls.
With the confirmation of the conviction after an appeal, the last legal recourse to annul it, was rejected by the Supreme Court in an unappealable decision published last Friday, Martinelli is disqualified from being a candidate, jurists who cited the Constitution and the Electoral Code told EFE.
The sentence disqualifies Martinelli because it is over five years in prison and given the nature of the crime, according to lawyers, who cite Article 180 of the current Constitution.
The Electoral Tribunal issued a statement saying it “will enforce due process and above all what the Constitution and the law governing the electoral process indicates,” in the face of “growing misinformation related to the candidacy of Martinelli.”
The former president was sentenced in July 2023 to 10 years and eight months in prison and fined 19.2 million dollars for the irregular purchase of the media publishing house Epasa, a case dating back to 2017.
“They want to kill me in jail”
“They want to jail me, to try to kill me again in prison; just as they already announced they would do, as they already tried three times while I was illegally detained in the previous political process,” said Ricardo Martinelli this Saturday.
The former president was detained preventively between June 2018 and June 2019 in a chalet cell at El Renacer, a minimum-security prison located on the outskirts of the capital, while facing a trial for the illegal interception of the telecommunications of 150 people during his government, a case in which he was acquitted.
His time at El Renacer was controversial: he suffered physical ailments that led him to the hospital, and his visits were suspended for a month for threatening the guards, as reported in October 2018. Upon a complaint from Martinelli, the Penitentiary System had to clarify that he was treated like any other inmate there, as he attended his medical appointments, carried out his procedures, went out to the yard “regularly,” and went to mass.
This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.