Court approves Noriega's extradition to France

Panama’s former dictator, Manuel Noriega, can be extradited to France for a money-laundering trial after he completes a lengthy jail sentence in Miami next month, a United States judge ruled on Tuesday.

Judge William Turnoff said Noriega’s status as a prisoner of war under the Geneva conventions did not mean he should immediately be sent back to the Central America country he ruled in the 1980s. An extradition order would be issued on Wednesday, said the judge.

France wants to try the 73-year-old for allegedly laundering $3-million in drug money through French banks. The offence carries a maximum 10-year sentence.

Defence lawyers signalled they would appeal against the decision because Noriega wants to go home, even though there he faces even more serious charges.

He was convicted in Miami in 1992 of trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy.
His 40-year sentence, reduced because of good behaviour, ends on September 9.

In recognition of his status as a prisoner of war, his cell—nicknamed the presidential suite—contained two rooms, a television, a telephone and an exercise bike.

The career soldier rose through the ranks of Panama’s military and became a CIA protégé. He became the country’s de facto ruler in 1983 and took Washington’s side in conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Relations soured when he rigged several elections and became involved in drug trafficking. Opponents were beaten and several killed, making it difficult for the White House to turn a blind eye to his mafia-style rule.

President George Bush Snr, father of the current US president, invaded in 1989 leaving hundreds, possibly thousands, dead and the dictator holed up in the Vatican embassy. He surrendered after US troops blasted the compound with loud rock music.

While he was in jail in Miami, a French court convicted him of laundering money through Paris apartment purchases. The French government has agreed to a new trial and to recognise him as a prisoner of war if he is extradited.

Tuesday’s ruling, which was in effect a recommendation to the US Justice Department, was based partly on a ruling last week by a more senior Judge, William Hoeveler, who said the prisoner could be extradited.

Noriega’s lawyer, Frank Rubino, told reporters he would probably appeal. “I can assure this court and everyone else: you haven’t heard the end of this.” That could mean Noriega remains in Miami beyond September 9 while an appeal is heard.

The former leader has been convicted of murder and other human rights abuses in Panama but because he is over 70 he could be allowed to serve time in his own house.—Guardian Unlimited Â

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