Panama court deals blow to convicted ex-president, who insists he's still a candidate

By Elida Moreno and Valentine Hilaire

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) -Panama's top court rejected former President Ricardo Martinelli's appeal to annul a nearly 11-year prison sentence on Friday, but the ex-leader remained defiant and insisted he remains a candidate in the May presidential election.

Martinelli uploaded a video to social media shortly after the court's ruling was made public in the unprecedented legal and political drama, announcing he will launch his presidential run on Saturday.

Panama's constitution bars anyone sentenced to a prison term of five years or more from serving as president, although authorities have yet to issue a statement on the legal status of a possible run for president this year.

Recent polls show Martinelli leading the race.

Last year, Martinelli, a supermarket magnate-turned-politician, was sentenced to a 128-month prison term for money laundering in a case that centered on claims that public funds were used to buy a media conglomerate, which in turn gave him a majority stake.

Martinelli was president of the Central American nation from 2009 to 2014.

In a text message to Reuters, Martinelli insisted he can still mount another presidential campaign.

"I believe I can still run," he wrote, without explaining how that is possible after losing his appeal.

It is unclear how Martinelli might sidestep the constitutional ban.

Under Panamanian law, Martinelli or his lawyer have five days to go to the court to be formally notified of the ruling, after which the judge who ordered the sentence can finalize the paperwork needed to execute the prison sentence and theoretically order his arrest, according to legal expert Alfonso Fraguela.

But he added that Martinelli, 71, can likely petition a judge for house arrest, due to his age, and in doing so avoid being detained by police.

Jose Isabel Blandon, who is running for vice president alongside presidential candidate Romulo Roux, has said he hopes Martinelli supporters might switch their support to Roux following the court ruling.

Martinelli lost his appeal just a day before the formal start of the campaign for the May election.

In a short video clip posted on X, the ex-leader invited supporters to attend his campaign launch on Saturday afternoon in the capital, but made no mention of the court ruling.

"We're going to give it our all to save Panama," he said.

Earlier this week, Martinelli said on social media that he would be "happy to" pass his votes to his running mate, Jose Raul Mulino, if he is barred from seeking the presidency.

One of Martinelli's lawyers, Sidney Sitton, told reporters that the court's decision has a political undertone, noting that the electoral court has the last word on the status of Martinelli's candidacy.

That court has yet to issue any decision.

(Reporting by Elida Moreno and Valentine Hilaire; Editing by Sarah Morland, Mark Porter, Paul Simao and Leslie Adler)