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Nicaragua grants asylum to Panama ex-president facing jail

Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli speaks during a political rally in Panama City on February 3, 2024 (MARTIN BERNETTI)
Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli speaks during a political rally in Panama City on February 3, 2024 (MARTIN BERNETTI)

Nicaragua said Wednesday that it had granted asylum to Panama's ex-president Ricardo Martinelli, days after he lost a final appeal against an almost 11-year jail term for money laundering.

Martinelli sought asylum at the Nicaraguan embassy "because he considered himself persecuted for political reasons" and to be at risk, Nicaragua's foreign ministry said in a message to Panama.

The Nicaraguan government accepted Martinelli's request, according to the note read out to the press in Managua by President Daniel Ortega's wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

It urged the Panamanian authorities to ensure the "prompt departure" of Martinelli to Nicaragua on humanitarian grounds.

Martinelli, who was president from 2009 to 2014, was found guilty last year of using stolen public money to buy a stake in a publishing house. He also received a $19 million fine.

Panama's Supreme Court rejected Martinelli's final appeal against the prison sentence, according to a ruling published Friday, dealing another blow to his hopes of reelection in May.

The 71-year-old, who was a millionaire businessman when he became president in 2009, has been investigated for multiple corruption scandals since leaving office.

In 2021, Martinelli was acquitted on charges of espionage and embezzlement of public funds.

He faces a separate trial, scheduled for after the May 5 elections, over alleged bribery payments during his presidency from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht for public works projects in Panama.

Martinelli -- who according to opinion polls remains popular in Panama -- described the Supreme Court ruling as an "illegal last-minute move" to remove him from the presidential race.

Other candidates running include former president Martin Torrijos and current Vice President Jose Gabriel Carrizo.

Nicaragua has previously granted asylum to other ex-Central American leaders facing legal troubles, including former Salvadoran presidents Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sanchez Ceren.

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