Panama tribunal rules ex-president Martinelli cannot run in election -spokesman

Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Lemos

Adds quote from Martinelli and background on his career

PANAMA CITY, April 26 (Reuters) - Panama's electoral tribunal ruled that former president Ricardo Martinelli, who is awaiting trial on wiretapping charges, cannot take part in next month's elections, his spokesman said on Friday, dealing a heavy blow to his political comeback.

"The ruling of the electoral tribunal has disqualified him as candidate," said Martinelli spokesman Eduardo Camacho, calling the court's ruling a "political decision."

The tribunal has not yet officially confirmed the ruling, which was also reported in local media in Panama.

Martinelli, a supermarket tycoon who led the Central American country from 2009 to 2014, was running for mayor of Panama City and a seat in the congress.

Wearing a baseball cap and jeans, he shouted "electoral fraud" to reporters as he entered the courthouse on Friday morning.

In a video shared by his lawyer, Martinelli struck a defiant tone, vowing to return to the presidency in 2024.

"This makes me stronger, it makes me humbler," he said. "We will return."

Martinelli was extradited to Panama last June from the United States and charged with spying on 150 people, including politicians, union leaders and journalists. Now awaiting trial for spying as well as charges of embezzlement of public funds to finance it, he faces up to 21 years in prison.

None of that stopped the pugnacious businessman and avid tweeter who is often likened to U.S. President Donald Trump from mounting a return to public life from his prison cell, decrying the charges as "fake news." He denies any wrongdoing.

Polls showed Martinelli was front-runner to be elected mayor of Panama City in May, the second-biggest political post in the country; he was also running a separate campaign for a seat in the National Assembly in case that failed.

Analysts expected Martinelli to try to use the mayor's job as a springboard to return to the presidency.

(Reporting by Elida Moreno and Stefanie Eschenbacher Editing by Bill Trott and Rosalba O'Brien)

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