Phonetapping Scandal Brings Down Martinelli Officials


Español Two former secretaries of Panama’s National Security Council (CSN) were arrested in Panama City on the morning of Monday, January 12, for alleged participation in illegal surveillance of at least 150 politicians and public figures during the presidency of Ricardo Martinelli (2009-14).

Alejandro Garúz and Gustavo Pérez, two of the five CSN directors who occupied the post during the period, were charged by the auxiliary prosecutor with violating official secrets and the right to privacy, and remain in preventative prison following initial hearings which took place on Tuesday.

The investigation included 11 house searches in various provinces throughout the country on early Monday morning, including the houses of both Garúz and Pérez, in which police found high-caliber firearms.

“‘Garúz had a sub-machine gun and Pérez a minimax [pistol]. This merits preventative detention,’ said a secretary from the prosecutor’s Office.”

The current government began an administrative investigation last year into the illegal interception of telephone and internet communications during the Martinelli era. On Monday, secretary-general of the Public Ministry Rolando Rodríguez revealed that approximately 150 people had been spied upon by the government. The list included politicians, journalists, trade unionists, businessmen, and civil society leaders.

“Gustavo Perez y Alejandro Garúz [sic] will spend the night in the Judicial Investigation Office.”

In December, local newspaper La Prensa reported that the government had acquired long-range interception technology in 2010, enabling it to tap into computers and cell phones from a distance and record almost any content, including text messages and communications sent via applications such as WhatsApp and Blackberry Messenger.

However, the new government has yet to disclose the whereabouts of the technology in question. The current secretary of the CSN, Rolando López, filed a legal complaint at the end of 2014 about his predecessor, Alejandro Garúz — also brother-in-law of Martinelli — for the disappearance of the powerful surveillance equipment, and for crimes against the state.

López alleged that Garúz’s administration failed to declare the existence of the equipment during the transition between the two administrations, and failed to register the entry of the surveillance aparatus into the country, despite the funds transferred by the National Help Program (PAN) remaining in CSN archives.

PAN, a fund created to cater to the emergency needs of the poorest populations in the country, was charged with paying US$13.4 million to Israeli company MLM Protection for the eavesdropping device. Sources close to the CSN said the price was inflated, telling La Prensa that the actual price of the equipment was around $2 million.

Victims Hit Back

According to the Public Ministry, now that the 150 individuals on the official list have been notified of the CSN’s wrongdoing, each one will now proceed to the auxiliary prosecutor to identify the messages attributed to them.  According to La Prensa, the intercepted messages were stored in hundreds of printed pages.

Former President Ricardo Martinelli has hinted at a return to politics in response to the case. (Source)
Former President Ricardo Martinelli has hinted at a return to politics in response to the case. (Flickr)

Former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares, and former secretary-general of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) Mitchell Doens reported on Monday that they had been contacted to corroborate the information. Doens stated that he recognized emails and text messages that he’d sent in 2010, and would be filing a legal complaint against former President Martinelli.

In statements given to the Estrella de Panamá Doens argued that Martelli’s judicial immunity as a deputy with the Central American Parliament should be removed, so that he can face charges related to the case.

Another of those contacted by investigating authorities, former Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis Navarro, stated that conversations he’d had with “important figures” from the United States had been intercepted.

“Dramatic” Erosion of Civil Liberties

Responses from the human-rights sector were quick to come from both José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Carolina Botero, former rapporteur for freedom of expression with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACH).

“What is coming to public light in Panama, thanks to judicial investigations, is serious and must be investigated to the ultimate consequences,” said Vivanco. “It reflects that senior officials of the former government were apparently violating the right to privacy of dozens of people, including politicians and members of civil societies.”

Botero, meanwhile, highlighted the wider ramifications of surveillance this kind. “This type of espionage has a dramatic effect on human rights,” she said. “First, there is an affectation of the right to privacy. If that expectation is lost, it damages many of the rights that must be defended in a democracy.

Menalco Solis, formerly secretary of the CSN between 1990 and 1994, told the PanAm Post that while the practice of monitoring communications was a feature of the dictatorship of Manuel Antonio Noriega (1983-89), the new case is unprecedented in Panamanian history due to the use of new technologies , as well as the judicial investigation of those allegedly responsible.

“I hope that this goes right ahead. It will be a huge task, and it will require a great degree of delicacy and courage on the part of the investigators and judges, but society is watching and expecting concrete results,” he said.

Solis nevertheless called for the legal process to avoid a “witch hunt” against former officials of the Martinelli administration. “We must respect the right of the accused to a strong defense, so that none of the results of this proceedings are suspect.”

Accused Protest Innocence

Both of the accused attended formal hearings on Tuesday in the auxiliary prosecutor’s office in Panama City. The attorney representing Gustavo Pérez, Armando Fuentes, argued Pérez’s innocence before the assembled media, and alleged a violation of due process, claiming that there existed no links between the former CSN secretary and the surveillance scheme. However, the prosecutor ruled that Pérez had to remain in preventative prison, citing its possession of evidence indicating his connection to the case.
“In the Garúz and Perez case, they ordered their arrest before the hearing when the crime didn’t permit it. Without bail, without habeas corpus, #dictatorship.”

Meanwhile Cristóbal Arboleda, Alejandro Garúz’s attorney, insisted that the crime for which his client was being investigated didn’t merit preventative detention, and that he had a license to hold the firearms found in his home.

Former President Martinelli himself intervened in the case on Monday, describing the detention of Garúz and Pérez as “political persecution” in a phone conversation with Nextv channel.

He also labelled current President Juan Carlos Varela a “dictator,” and indicated that he would return to front-line politics in response to the case: “I was thinking of taking a vacation, but this situation obliges me to return,” Martinelli said.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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