PARIS (AP) - Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega faced
money laundering charges in a French courtroom Tuesday after being
extradited from the United States, opening up a whole new legal
battle for the strongman who spent two decades behind bars in
Florida for drug trafficking.
French authorities claim Noriega, who was ousted in a U.S.
invasion in 1989, had laundered some $7 million in drug profits by
purchasing luxury apartments with his wife in Paris. Noriega was
convicted in absentia, but France agreed to give him a new trial if
he was extradited.
The 72-year-old Noriega arrived Tuesday morning on a direct
flight from Miami and was served with an international arrest
warrant. He could face another 10 years in prison if convicted in
Noriega's French lawyers are seeking his immediate release,
saying his detention and transfer are unlawful. U.S. Secretary of
State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed a surrender warrant for Noriega
after a federal judge in Miami lifted a stay blocking his
extradition last month.
Noriega appeared before prosecutors behind closed doors at the
main Paris courthouse Tuesday and they read him the warrant, the
first step before any other judicial action can be taken.
Later Tuesday, he was to appear before a judge who will decide
whether or not to keep him behind bars or release him under
judicial supervision pending further action.
If Noriega is released, even to house arrest or under other
strict legal controls, that would be a major victory after a
generation behind bars. It could also be an awkward situation for
France, where a string of former dictators from Haiti to West
Africa have settled in the past, sometimes in luxurious homes
purchased with money of dubious origin.
Yves Leberquier, Noriega's French lawyer, said the former
dictator is half-paralyzed since suffering from a mild stroke four
"The man appears to be very weak," said Olivier Metzner,
another of his French lawyers.
Leberquier argued that it was 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accommodate, and that the charges against him are no longer valid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
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. "For justice to be served, the judiciary must acknowledge
it is incompetent to put him on trial" in France.
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
Panama's foreign minister, Juan Carlos Varela, told reporters
that Panama respects the U.S. decision to extradite Noriega to
France but will still try to get him back to Panama "to serve the
sentences handed down by Panamanian courts."
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.
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.
He finished serving his term in federal prison outside Miami in
2007, but stayed in prison while France sought his extradition.
Sandra Noriega, one of his 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."
The French indictment says Noriega was born in 1938, although as
a youth he claimed to be older so he could enter a military
France convicted Noriega and his wife in absentia of laundering
a total of 35 million francs ($7 million) in cocaine profits
through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in
three posh Paris apartments. The in-absentia French conviction,
obtained by The Associated Press, says Noriega "knew that (the
money) came directly or indirectly from drug trafficking." It said
he helped Colombia's Medellin drug cartel by authorizing the
transport of cocaine through Panama en route to the United States.