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Panama seizes ex-president's helicopter over bribery claims

© AFP/File | Panamanian former president Ricardo Martinelli, a businessman who owns a chain of supermarkets in Panama, is being investigated on charges of corruption and spying on opponents

PANAMA CITY (AFP) - 

Panama on Tuesday seized a helicopter belonging to a wealthy former president, Ricardo Martinelli, whose family is under suspicion of accepting bribes from a Brazilian construction group.

Prosecutors said in a statement they had taken "provisional possession" of the Airbus aircraft, registration N16261, after it was confiscated by authorities in Mexico.

Although the prosecutors' statement did not name Martinelli as the owner, the former leader and his lawyers confirmed ownership.

Martinelli, who went to live in self-exile in the United States after his 2009-2014 term, said on Twitter he was preparing a lawsuit for "helicopter theft."

"The Martinelli family acquired a helicopter abroad, registered it in North America's jurisdiction and transferred ownership to a North American trust," one of Martinelli's lawyers, Alejandro Perez, told a news conference in Panama.

"This helicopter was paid with funds that have absolutely no relation to the Odebrecht case," he said, referring to the Brazilian group.

Panamanian authorities accuse Martinelli's sons -- Ricardo and Luis Enrique Martinelli, who are also outside the country -- and 15 others of taking more than $20 million in bribes from Odebrecht in return for helping it receive lucrative public contracts.

Odebrecht has admitted to paying $788 million in bribes to win fat construction contracts in 12 countries. It has agreed with the US Justice Department to pay a record $3.5-billion fine.

Ricardo Martinelli, a businessman who owns a chain of supermarkets in Panama, is being investigated on separate charges of corruption and spying on opponents.

The Martinellis deny the accusations against them, which they say are political persecution waged by the current president, Juan Carlos Varela, a former ally who used to be Martinelli's foreign minister.

© 2017 AFP