On Tuesday, May 12, police in Panama detained former Finance Minister Frank de Lima, who served under the Ricardo Martinelli administration (2009-2014), amid an ongoing investigation into the former president’s alleged corrupt activities.
De Lima’s detention comes after Panama’s Electoral Court stripped Martinelli of his immunity from prosecution in late April. The former president is facing charges for allegedly inflating multimillion dollar contracts with food providers that supplied the National Help Program (PAN), a government-run welfare program.
Having left the country as news of the charges first emerged, Martinelli is currently living in Miami, Florida.
De Lima’s attorney Luis Rey said his client’s arrest is “abusive and harsh” because “the file does not show enough evidence to merit the detention.”
Rey said De Lima was arrested on Monday at midnight, “after which he spent the whole day testifying and defending himself.” The news of his detention only surfaced on Tuesday afternoon.
Martinelli meanwhile hit out at the detention of one his former allies and said that “the terrible government we have is trying him due to political persecution.”
As Finance Minister, De Lima was responsible for drawing up the budget during Martinelli’s tenure, including the budget for PAN. His lawyers, however, state that he is neither responsible for the management of the program’s budget nor awarding contracts, two key aspects of the accusation against Martinelli.
De Lima joins Social Development Minister Guillermo Ferrufino, who has been held since early March at the Judicial Intelligence Directorate.
Meanwhile, in a last-ditch effort to avoid prosecution in absentia, Martinelli’s lawyers asked a judge to dismiss the case currently being led by the Supreme Court. Prosecutors suspect that a large part of the US$1.2 billion PAN spent in a little over four years may have gone missing.
Martinelli could become the first public official since Panama’s return to democracy in 1989 to face criminal proceedings for embezzlement.