As Panama jumps into its boisterous Carnival period, the celebrations this weekend come amid a bizarre political drama playing out in the capital.
A former president, who is also a top contender in this year’s presidential election in May, has holed himself up in the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama City, accompanied by his furniture, including a sofa and a desk, as well as his dog, Bruno.
Ricardo Martinelli, a 71-year-old conservative businessman who led Panama from 2009 to 2014, was granted asylum by Nicaragua this week after Panama’s Supreme Court denied his appeal of a money-laundering conviction that carried with it a 10-year prison sentence.
Mr. Martinelli, who has faced other criminal investigations, contends not only that the case is politically motivated, but also that Panama’s president and vice president want to kill him.
Instead of going to prison, he said he intends to continue his presidential campaign from the grounds of the embassy, even though Panama’s Constitution prohibits someone who has been sentenced to five years or more for intentionally committing a crime from running the country.
“You have to be very cowardly to disqualify a presidential candidate who is first in the polls,” he said in a statement posted Wednesday on X, the social media platform. He added: “That is an attack against democracy.”
Some polls have shown that Mr. Martinelli is the front-runner. The electoral tribunal has strongly implied he would be disqualified from being on the ballot in the coming election.
Panama’s Foreign Ministry said Friday evening that it would not grant Nicaragua’s request to allow Mr. Martinelli safe passage to its country, citing an article of an international agreement on political asylum, ratified by Nicaragua and Panama, stating that countries cannot grant asylum to people who have been “duly prosecuted” for nonpolitical crimes.
Nicaragua’s Foreign Ministry later responded to Panama’s refusal, saying that political asylum needs to be respected as a humanitarian right.
Mr. Martinelli’s spokesman, Luis Eduardo Camacho, said that Panama’s decision on safe passage wasn’t a surprise “because this is not a democracy. This is a wild state of law.”
Fernando Gómez-Arbeláez, a lawyer in Panama who specializes in international law, said that allowing Mr. Martinelli to flee the country would be a national embarrassment.
“The government of Panama is conscious that letting Martinelli leave the country this way would be a mockery of gigantic proportions of the Panamanian justice system,” Mr. Gómez-Arbeláez said.
It was unclear as of Friday night if the authorities in Panama had issued an order for Mr. Martinelli to be arrested.
Mr. Martinelli was convicted last July in a case in which prosecutors said that funds were obtained from government contractors for the 2010 purchase of a publishing house. In addition to the prison sentence, he was fined $19 million.
The former president has denied wrongdoing.
Several days after the Supreme Court denied his appeal, Mr. Martinelli presented a criminal complaint to Panama’s National Assembly, accusing Panama’s president and vice president of attempted homicide. The complaint alleged that a person close to the president’s office had warned of a plot to kill Mr. Martinelli to prevent him from becoming president.
The current president, Laurentino Cortizo, has denied the allegation.
As the country’s news headlines focused on the Martinelli situation, the streets of Panama City on Friday were congested with people rushing to do their shopping before the start of Carnival, a holiday celebrated over four days before Ash Wednesday that includes parades and dancing in the streets at night.
Some said that they backed Mr. Martinelli, pointing to how he had led the country during a period of strong economic growth, accompanied by a multibillion-dollar expansion of the Panama Canal.
At a bus terminal, Tais Saldaña, a 23-year-old speech therapy student, said she had planned to vote for Mr. Martinelli — and that if not for the festivities, people would be out protesting to support him.
“Politics is dirty,” Ms. Saldaña said. “The fact that he’s disqualified takes away an opportunity from the Panamanian to freely choose, to support a candidate who because of his experience or what he has done in previous years is a favorite of the Panamanians.”
At the entrance of the Panama Canal, Joel Alvarado, a 28-year-old driver, said that he didn’t believe Mr. Martinelli was a victim of political persecution. “He’s done good things, that’s true, but it doesn’t justify that they steal from us; that we work every day and they steal our taxes is not fair,” he said.
Although Nicaragua is run by a leftist government, the conservative Mr. Martinelli said in an interview with CNN a few days ago that he has “a great fondness and appreciation for Nicaragua.”
Nicaragua has become increasingly authoritarian, and its officials have faced sanctions from the United States for stripping political dissidents of their citizenship. The country has also been seizing the property of its critics.
But Nicaragua has a history of providing safe haven to politicians under criminal investigation, said Manuel Orozco, the director of the migration, remittances and development program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington.
In the last decade, for example, Nicaragua has granted refuge to two former presidents of El Salvador.
Mr. Martinelli has faced previous criminal investigations. In 2021, he was acquitted on charges of wiretapping opponents and journalists. He has also been implicated in a pending legal case related to a multinational bribery scandal involving the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.
When asked for comment on the situation in Panama, the State Department mentioned that it had previously banned Mr. Martinelli from the United States for having accepted bribes in exchange for awarding government contracts while serving as president.
“The United States and Panama promote shared democratic values of accountability, rule of law and transparency,” it said in a statement.
Mary Triny Zea contributed reporting from Panama City.