- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 22, 2015

PANAMA CITY (AP) - Panama’s former President Ricardo Martinelli insisted on Tuesday that he’s being targeted politically and will stay outside the country while fighting charges that he illegally spied on opponents.

The Supreme Court on Monday ordered his detention for allegedly intercepting the communications of at least 150 people during his 2009 to 2014 administration. The case is one of a half-dozen investigations against the 63-year-old supermarket magnate for alleged corruption.

Martinelli left Panama aboard his private jet in January after the election of archrival Juan Carlos Varela and a day after the Supreme Court took steps to lift his immunity as a current member of the Central American Parliament. He is believed to be living in Florida, and Panama must now request his extradition for the trial against him to proceed.

“I will prove my innocence here because there is no justice over there,” Martinelli said in a statement. “I’ll go if a politically appropriate moment presents itself, or after that tyrant leaves in 2019.”

Martinelli has accused Varela, who once was his vice president, of concocting a case against him in revenge for being fired from his second post as foreign minister two years into the presidency. Varela has rejected that accusation.

Prosecutors have accused Martinelli of illegally intercepting emails and phone calls of opponents, journalists and civil society activists, among others. Two former heads of the National Security Council have been arrested in the case. If found guilty, the former president could face up to 21 years in jail.

Martinelli also has been stripped of his immunity from prosecution in another case in which aides are accused of inflating contracts worth $45 million to buy dehydrated food for the government’s social program.

At least four cabinet ministers from Martinelli’s administration have been jailed on corruption charges since his term ended last year.

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