Panama Judge Calls Two Ex-Presidents to Trial in Odebrecht Probe

PANAMA
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PANAMA CITY, Nov 8 (Reuters) – A Panama judge on Tuesday called two former presidents, as well as a slate of other high-profile figures, to trial over money-laundering related to the Odebrecht bribery probe, a sweeping corruption investigation which has rippled across Latin America.

The country’s state attorney’s office said a judge had summoned 36 people to trial over money-laundering charges, including six former ministers, former officials, business people and other individuals.

The trial would begin in August 2023, it said.

Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s president from 2009 to 2014, had been summoned, along with his sons Ricardo and Luis, the office said. The sons were sentenced in May to three years in prison by a U.S. court for helping launder millions of dollars in bribe payments made by Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.

The judge also summoned Martinelli’s successor and vice president, Juan Carlos Varela, who served as president until 2019.

Both have denied committing crimes. Martinelli plans to run for the presidency again in 2024.

A spokesman for Martinelli told Reuters on Tuesday that the call to stand trial violated legal conditions established after Martinelli was extradited from the United States in 2018 on charges of espionage. He has been acquitted twice on the accusations of spying.

Martinelli is also innocent in relation to the Odebrecht probe and is the subject of an attack for his planned presidential campaign, his spokesman said.

Varela said in a statement posted to Twitter that he would “face this unjust process, convinced of my innocence and with the conviction I stand before a well-defined political strategy.”

Varela and Martinelli were banned from leaving Panama in 2020 when investigations began.

Martinelli has also faced investigation for allegedly diverting public funds to buy a media outlet.

Odebrecht and its parent company, Braskem (BRKM5.SA), Brazil’s largest petrochemicals company, agreed in 2016 to pay $3.5 billion to settle bribery-related charges brought by U.S., Brazilian and Swiss regulators.

The scandal over bribes for public-works contracts spread to other countries where Odebrecht did business, including Peru, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia.

Reporting by Eli Moreno; Writing by Carolina Pulice; Editing by Leslie Adler and Bradley Perrett
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