The United States extradited former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega to France on Monday to face money-laundering charges after years of legal wrangling, US and French officials said.
Noriega was placed on board an Air France jet, escorted by French prison officials, shortly after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed an extradition order in Washington, DC, officials said.
The plane departed for Charles De Gaulle airport at 5:46 pm (2146 GMT).
The flight ended a long legal battle by Noriega (74) to stave off extradition to France, where he faces charges of money-laundering, after spending two decades in US custody following his 1989 overthrow in a US invasion.
But even before Noriega had arrived in France, the legal wrangling resumed, with Panama saying it would continue to press for his extradition there and Noriega’s French lawyer vowing to challenge the jurisdiction of French courts.
Sandra Noriega, the former general’s daughter, said the move violated her father’s rights as a prisoner of war, a status conferred on him by the United States after his capture in 1990.
“This outlandish move is yet another violation of human rights and the rights under the Geneva Convention that protects prisoners of war,” she told RPC radio in Panama City.
Noriega’s lawyer, Frank Rubino, complained in Miami that he had not been informed of the action.
“Neither the State Department nor the Justice Department has the courtesy to call me and tell me that the order was signed or if general Noriega has been taking away,” he said.
Last legal avenue
A State Department spokesperson announced the extradition after US television networks showed video of what they said was Noriega being led from a van into the Miami International Airport.
“Now that all judicial challenges to Noriega’s extradition have been resolved, the secretary of state issued a surrender warrant for his extradition to France,” said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesperson.
In Paris, a spokesperson for the French Justice Ministry said the extradition was under way.
“France had been notified of this extradition two weeks ago,” said spokesperson Guillaume Didier, in confirming that Clinton had signed the extradition order.
Officials from France’s penitentiary administration took custody of Noriega in Miami, sources in Paris said.
The US Supreme Court threw out a bid in March by Noriega to halt his extradition to France, closing the last legal avenue for the former military strongman to escape French justice.
France sentenced him in absentia in 1999 to 10 years in prison but now wants to try him on money-laundering charges.
In Paris, a lawyer for Noriega said he would challenge the French court’s jurisdiction over Noriega, on grounds that he enjoys immunity as a former head of state and that the statute of limitations had run out on the charges against the former general.
Trying Noriega in France “presents difficulties that we believe are insurmountable”, said Yves Leberquier.
Meanwhile, Panama’s Foreign Minister, Juan Carlos Varela, said his government respected the US decision.
But he said “that does not mean Panama won’t insist on pursuing diplomatic and legal channels to return Mr Noriega to his country to face the sentences imposed by Panamanian courts”.
Noriega has three convictions for human rights violations in Panama each carrying a 20-year prison sentence.
Operation Just Cause
Once a prized CIA asset, Noriega rose to power in Panama as a military intelligence chief close to General Omar Torrijos, a left-leaning military strongman.
After Torrijos’s death in a mysterious 1981 plane crash, Noriega consolidated his power, ultimately becoming the head of the military and the country’s most feared man.
By then his close relations with the United States had soured amid reports he had become deeply involved in drug trafficking, and suspicions he was two-timing the CIA with the Cubans.
Escalating internal repression sent tensions soaring, culminating in the 1989 US invasion, dubbed Operation Just Cause, which ended in Noriega’s capture and removal to the United States as a prisoner of war.
He later was tried in Florida on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering and served a 17-year prison sentence, which he completed in 2007. Since then, he had remained in US custody while fighting extradition requests by France. — AFP