Former Panama president Ricardo Martinelli will contest next year’s general election after topping the poll in his party’s primaries despite being jailed on corruption charges.
Martinelli was one of the top-performing candidates in his right wing Cambio Democratico (Democratic Change) party, taking 44 percent of the votes in his constituency primary.
“My greatest wish is to get out soon from this confinement to help our country to overcome the deep crisis that has led to a desire to destroy me politically,” Martinelli said in a statement.
President from 2009 to 2014, supermarket tycoon Martinelli was extradited from the US in June after he fled to Miami in 2015 to avoid arrest.
He will be forced to contest the May 2019 election from behind bars if prosecutors have their way. They sought a 21-year sentence at a pre-trial hearing in July.
They accuse him of graft and spying on his political foes, as well as helping embezzle $45 million from a government school lunch program.
Cambio Democratico chief Romulo Roux told reporters he never had any doubt 66-year-old Martinelli “was going to win his constituency primary.”
“That he has taken the number of votes he took shows that he has leadership within the party,” said Roux.
The government has accused Martinelli of threatening staff at the El Renacer prison and breaching prison rules.
The former president’s lawyers have requested his release on several occasions for health reasons.
He denies the accusations, claiming he is a victim of “political persecution” by the government of President Juan Carlos Varela, his former political ally.