efe-epaPanama City

A former president of Panama was found not guilty on Friday in a case of political espionage involving his administration's alleged illegal wiretapping of his rivals.

The three-judge Panamanian court unanimously decided that the public prosecution had failed to prove its case against Ricardo Martinelli, who was in office between 2009-14, adding that the former chief executive's due process rights had been violated during the trial.

The prosecution had sought a sentence of 21 years in prison for the former head of State for corruption charges including his alleged use of public funds to record his rivals' private conversations to gain political leverage.

Those allegedly spied on by his government included some 150 opposition politicians, trade union leaders and journalists.

The court acknowledged there were indications that Martinelli's National Security Council – the body responsible for the wiretappings – had carried out activities that were "outside the law," but ruled that the ex-president could not be found guilty of this due to a lack of evidence.

"Questions arise that the evidence did not solve,” the magistrates said in their verdict.

The judges also ordered Martinelli's immediate release from house arrest, which he had been placed under last June after spending a year at a minimum-security prison following his extradition from the United States, where he had unsuccessfully applied for political asylum once the investigation against him was launched in 2015.

The charismatic 67-year-old politician and supermarket tycoon was met with cheers from his supporters as he triumphantly left the courthouse before thanking his attorneys for having "achieved justice."

Martinelli claimed that the whole case was a set-up orchestrated by his former ally and also ex-President Juan Carlos Varela (in power between 2014-19), whom he blamed for the "political persecution" he said he had been subjected to over the past five years.

Varela's brother, lawmaker Jose Luis Varela, was one of the alleged victims of the wiretaps.

"We're going to sue them all," Martinelli told local television broadcaster NexTV, which he owns.

After leaving the courthouse, Martinelli headed straight to NexTV's studios in Panama City.

"Panama has seen a historic day, but not because I've been exonerated of all charges," he said while facing the camera. "It's not for me, it's for all of you."

The sentence is still subject to appeal from the plaintiffs.

"We want justice," said one of their lawyers, Carlos Herrera Moran. "We will keep on fighting for the hundreds of victims whose rights and privacy were violated."

Lawmaker Balbina Herrera, one of the alleged victims of Martinelli's spying, reacted to the verdict by implying the judges had been bribed.

"Since this morning, we had heard information about what the ruling would be and that 1.8 million balboas ($1.8 million) had been paid to the judges," she said. EFE-EPA