France to extradite Noriega to Panama

Panama’s ex-strongman Manuel Noriega on Wednesday looked set to finally return home — and go straight into custody there — after more than two decades in foreign prisons, after France ordered his extradition.

The pockmarked 77-year-old general nicknamed “Pineapple Face”, deposed by US troops who invaded Panama in 1989 to put an end to his drug-running activities, could be back in his native land as early as next month.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon signed the extradition order a month ago and Noriega was notified of the move last Friday, officials said. Noriega has one month to appeal the decision, but his lawyer said he does not plan to do so.

A legal hearing has been set for September 8 to finalise the execution of the extradition order, said lawyer Yves Leberquier.

If and when Noriega does arrive back in Panama, he is expected to have to begin serving the lengthy sentences he received in absentia there.

He has three convictions for gruesome human rights violations, including the death of a military commander, dating to his military rule from 1983 to 1989. Each conviction carries a 20-year prison sentence.

The one-time strongman was a key asset for the US Central Intelligence Agency but fell out with Washington when he allegedly turned his strategically important country into a drugs hub.

He was sentenced by a Paris court in July last year to seven years in jail for laundering the equivalent of €2.3-million from Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel through French banks.

The drug money transited through the now-defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International in the late 1980s and was used by Noriega’s wife and a shell company to buy three luxury apartments in Paris.

A French court had previously sentenced Noriega to 10 years in jail when he was tried in absentia in 1999 on the same charges, but he was given a re-trial as part of the terms for his extradition from the United States last year.

Noriega had served 20 years in a US jail in Miami — after convictions for drug trafficking and money laundering — before being extradited to France.

Panama has said that the United States has given its approval for Noriega to be extradited to Panama from France. US consent was required under existing treaties since he had not yet served his full jail term in the United States.

Noriega rose to power in Panama as a military intelligence chief close to General Omar Torrijos, a left-leaning military strongman and father of the future president.

After Torrijos’ 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 Washington had soured amid reports he had become deeply involved in drug trafficking and suspicions he was two-timing the CIA with Cuba.

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.

Noriega denied during his Paris trial that he took payments from Colombian drug lords and said he was the victim of a setup orchestrated by the United States.

He testified that Washington had turned against him in the 1980s when he refused to allow Panama to become a staging ground for operations against leftists across Central America. — AFP

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