Panamanian authorities on Thursday ordered the arrest of former president Ricardo Martinelli, who has been taking refuge in the Nicaraguan Embassy since receiving political asylum from that country earlier this month.

A judge approved a requested change in Martinelli’s probation that had been maintained while he appealed his 10-year sentence for a money laundering conviction, the federal judiciary said. The Supreme Court denied Martinelli’s final appeal earlier this month, upholding his sentence and presumably ending his attempted political comeback.

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The change is unlikely to immediately result in Martinelli’s arrest, as he remained inside the Nicaraguan embassy. The government has so far refused to allow Nicaragua to remove Martinelli from the country.

The judiciary said the request to change Martinelli’s release status reflected the flight risk he posed, among other factors.

Martinelli, 71, who governed from 2009 to 2014, remains his party’s presidential candidate, although Panama’s Constitution prohibits anyone sentenced to five years or more for a crime from holding elected office.

Electoral authorities have said that they are only waiting for formal notification of the Supreme Court’s decision confirming his sentence to take action on his candidacy.

Corruption of the former president of Panama

Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli speaks with his supporters during a campaign rally, in Panama City, February 3, 2024. Panamanian authorities on Thursday, February 22, 2024 ordered the arrest of Martinelli, who has been hiding in The Nicaraguan Embassy since received political asylum from that country earlier this month. (AP Photo/Agustín Herrera)

Martinelli was convicted last July of money laundering in a case dating back to 2017 and related to his 2010 purchase of a publisher 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 later used to buy the publisher. The transactions involved a complex series of overseas money transfers totaling $43 million. The front company that collected the money was called “New Business.”

Martinelli was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison and a fine of $19 million. He has denied any wrongdoing and maintains that he was a victim of political persecution. An appeals court upheld the sentence in October.

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

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Last year, the U.S. government banned Martinelli and his immediate family from entering the country, based on what it called their involvement in “significant” corruption.

By Sam