US judge agrees to extradite ex-Panama president accused of graft

Miami (AFP) - A US judge agreed Thursday to extradite former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli to face corruption and other charges in his country.

US District Court Judge Edwin Torres said Panama had demonstrated probable cause against Martinelli, who ruled from 2009 to 2014.

The 65-year-old has lived in Miami since January 2015. He left Panama days before the Supreme Court there launched a corruption investigation against him.

He was detained in Miami on June 12, accused of graft and spying on political foes at home. Panama filed an extradition request last year.

Panama's Supreme Court alleged that Martinelli used public funds to illegally spy on telephone calls and emails of more than 150 prominent opponents.

Martinelli, a supermarket tycoon, denies the accusations, saying they are politically motivated.

After the judge's ruling, a spokesman for the ex-president, Luis Eduardo Camacho, told Panamanian TV channel Telemetro that Martinelli would appeal.

His Miami lawyers also confirmed the appeal plans.

Martinelli also has a political asylum request pending in the United States.

It is up to the State Department to decide whether to go ahead with the extradition. A department official declined comment Thursday, saying its was policy not to speak publicly about extradition issues. The official referred queries to the Justice Department.

Allegations against the former president include accusations he helped embezzle $45 million from a government school lunch program, as well as other cases of extortion, bribe-taking, misappropriation of public funds and abuse of power.

In his ruling, Judge Torres wrote "we find only that there are reasonable grounds to suppose him guilty of all or some of the offenses charged. As a result, good faith to the demanding government [in Panama] requires his surrender."