Extradited from US, ex-Panamanian dictator Noriega arrives in France for possible trial

By Pierre-antoine Souchard, AP
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Panama’s ex-leader Noriega arrives in France

PARIS — Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega arrived in France on Tuesday to face money laundering charges after being extradited from the United States. His lawyers are seeking his immediate release, saying his detention and transfer are unlawful.

A new legal battle will now begin for the 76-year-old former strongman, who was ousted in a U.S. invasion in 1989 and went on to spend two decades behind bars near Miami for drug racketeering.

Noriega landed at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport Tuesday morning on a direct flight from Miami. He will face a prosecutor to hear the French charges Monday, and then see a judge in Paris who will determine whether he should be jailed pending an eventual trial, Yves Leberquier, one of Noriega’s defense lawyers, said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has signed a so-called surrender warrant for Noriega after a federal judge in Miami lifted a stay blocking the extradition last month.

French authorities claim Noriega laundered some $3 million in drug proceeds by purchasing luxury apartments in Paris. Noriega was convicted in absentia, but France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited.

Leberquier told The Associated Press that he would ask the prosecutor on Monday to release Noriega immediately, arguing it’s illegal to try a former head of state who should have immunity from prosecution.

Other legal objections are that Noriega is considered a prisoner of war, a status Leberquier said French jails aren’t ready to accommodate, and that the charges against him are no longer valid because the acts he is accused of happened too long ago, the lawyer said.

Noriega was declared a POW after his 1992 drug conviction by a Miami federal judge. In Miami, Noriega had separate quarters in prison, the right to wear his military uniform and insignia, access to a television and monitoring by international rights groups.

“We’re not here to eventually make a moral judgment, we’ve got legal rules that have to be applied and respected,” Leberquier told AP before heading to the Paris prosecutor’s office.

“For justice to be served, the judiciary must acknowledge it is incompetent to put him on trial” in France, he said.

Leberquier said Noriega was delayed during his ride from the airport to central Paris by protesting French farmers blocking the road with tractors.

French Justice Ministry spokesman Guillaume Didier said Noriega could go on trial within two months.

Panama also has an outstanding request for the former dictator’s extradition. He was convicted in Panama in absentia and sentenced to 60 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, corruption and murdering opponents.

Panama’s foreign minister, Juan Carlos Varela, told reporters that Panama respects the U.S. decision to extradite Noriega but will still try to get him back to Panama “to serve the sentences handed down by Panamanian courts.”

Noriega was ousted as Panama’s leader and put on trial following a 1989 U.S. military invasion ordered by President George H.W. Bush. Noriega was brought to Miami and was convicted of drug racketeering and related charges in 1992.

Sandra Noriega, one of the former dictator’s three daughters, called Noriega’s extradition to France “a violation of his rights as a citizen, and a failing by the (Panamanian) government, which is supposed to protect its citizens.”

Noriega was Panama’s longtime intelligence chief before he took power in 1982. He had been considered a valued CIA asset for years, but as a ruler he joined forces with drug traffickers and was implicated in the death of a political opponent.

Associated Press writers Alfred de Montesquiou and Angela Charlton in Paris and Juan Zamorano in Panama City contributed to this report.

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