WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to release him from a Florida jail while he fights Panama's efforts to extradite him.
Martinelli was jailed last month in a federal detention center in Miami after Panama asked the United States to extradite him on charges that he conducted illegal surveillance and stole state funds while president -- charges he has repeatedly denied.
Attorneys for Martinelli filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday seeking his release while he fights extradition, after a federal magistrate judge in Florida denied his request to be freed on bail and 24-hour monitoring.
Panamanian authorities accuse Martinelli of using public money to spy on more than 150 people, including politicians, activists and union members. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
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The supermarket magnate was arrested in June, almost eight months after Panama said it sent an extradition request to the U.S. State Department.
Martinelli, who was president from 2009 until 2014, fled Panama in January 2015 to the United States as government prosecutors stepped up an investigation into his term. Since then Martinelli has lived in a condo in Miami until his arrest by U.S. authorities last month.
Current President Juan Carlos Varela helped Martinelli win the presidency in 2009 and was his vice president.
In 2015, Reuters reported that a U.S. federal judge identified Martinelli as one of several alleged co-conspirators in a bribery scheme that helped software company SAP win millions of dollars of business with his government. The United States has not charged Martinelli and he has denied involvement with the scheme.
In an interview on Thursday, David Markus, an attorney for Martinelli, acknowledged it is unusual to seek intervention from the Supreme Court, without first appealing to lower courts.
But the motion would stand little chance in district or appeals courts, said Markus, which have almost always ruled against granting bail to those facing extradition -- a stance the attorney said is based on a misreading of the law.
"Only (the Supreme) Court can resolve the confusion at this point", Markus said in the motion.
Markus said the legal precedent against allowing bail in extradition cases is from a century-old ruling when "the world was a much bigger place."
"This was before GPS monitoring. This is a former president. It's not that he can go and hide somewhere," Markus said.
(Reporting by Joel Schectman in Washington and Christine Murray in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)