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Former Panamanian economy minister arrested in corruption probe

[PANAMA CITY] A former Panamanian finance minister has been placed under arrest as part of a probe into alleged corruption under former president Ricardo Martinelli, his lawyers said Tuesday.

The former minister, Frank De Lima, was arrested late Monday, his lawyer Luis Rey told TVN-2 television, calling the action "abusive and severe." Panamanian prosecutors are investigating allegations that as much as US$1.7 million were skimmed from grain purchases made by a government food assistance program, known as PAN by its Spanish acronym.

Martinelli, who was president from 2009 to 2014, also is under investigation by Panama's Supreme Court in connection with alleged overbilling in a separate US$45 million PAN contract for dehydrated foods distributed to public schools.

Martinelli, who has been out of the country since January, claims the allegations against his administration are politically motivated.

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This is "political persecution for criticising the horrible government that we have," Martinelli said in a Twitter posting.

As economy and finance minister, De Lima made budget allocations that funded the programme, but Mr Rey said his client was not responsible for awarding PAN contracts.

He is the second member of Mr Martinelli's cabinet to be arrested in the corruption scandal, following the jailing of former social development minister Guillermo Ferrufino on March 4.

Two former directors of the programme also are under arrest on charges of malfeasance.