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Panama Supreme Court lets ex-President Martinelli's sentence stand, likely ending his reelection bid

PANAMA CITY (AP) — Panama’s Supreme Court on Friday denied an appeal from former President Ricardo Martinelli, convicted of money laundering in the case of a media company he purchased, likely keeping him out of this year’s presidential race.

The court ruled that a 10-year prison sentence handed down last year for Martinelli will stand, making him ineligible to run in Panama’s presidential elections May 5. Article 180 of the country's constitution says that no one sentenced to five or more years for a crime can be elected president or vice president.

The 71-year-old businessman and supermarket magnate who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014 was elected by his party last June as its presidential candidate. He was one of eight hopefuls vying for the presidency.

Neither the Panama Electoral Tribunal nor the Supreme Court immediately responded to questions about when Martinelli would be formally barred from the election.

If he is barred, Martinelli's running mate José Raúl Mulino would become the party’s presidential candidate.

Martinelli was convicted last July of money laundering in a case dating back to 2017 and related to his 2010 purchase of a publishing company that owns national newspapers.

Prosecutors said companies that had won lucrative government contracts during Martinelli’s presidency funneled money to a front company that was then used to purchase the publisher. The transactions involved a complex series of foreign money transfers that came up to $43 million. The front company collecting the money was called “New Business.”

Martinelli was sentenced to 128 months in prison and fined $19 million. He had denied wrongdoing and maintained that he was the victim of a political persecution. An appeals court ratified the sentence in October.

Martinelli, a populist who oversaw a period of massive infrastructure projects in the country, including construction of the capital’s first metro line, is the first former president convicted of a crime in Panama.

Last year, the United States government barred Martinelli and his immediate family from entering the country, based on his involvement in “significant” corruption.