WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was extradited yesterday to France where he has been convicted on money laundering charges, according to US law enforcement and airport officials.
The former army general and one-time CIA informant, now 76 years old, was taken from his jail cell and put on board an Air France flight in Miami due to arrive in Paris this morning.
Noriega, who finished his US prison sentence for drug trafficking two years ago, has remained in a Florida prison while fighting his extradition to France. His attorneys argue that as a prisoner of war he must be sent back to Panama.
“No one from the State or Justice Department has had the common courtesy to call us and tell us,” said Frank Rubino, Noriega’s main U.S. attorney. He said he learned that his client had been bundled aboard the flight from reporters.
“They just ignored us,” said Rubino.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed the extradition order earlier yesterday, said State Department spokesman Andy Laine. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. Noriega was convicted in absentia in France of laundering cocaine profits through French banks and using the money to buy three luxury apartments. However, the former Panamanian strongman can seek a new trial once he arrives in France. He had challenged his extradition to the US Supreme Court, but the highest court let stand a ruling by a federal appeals court that the US government can legally send Noriega to France without violating his rights as a prisoner of war.
The US appeals court had rejected Noriega’s claim that his extradition would violate his rights under the Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of prisoners of war. The US government has supported France’s extradition request and said the Geneva Conventions do not apply to Noriega’s case.
In February 1988, the US Drug Enforcement Administration had Noriega indicted on federal drugs charges relating to cocaine trafficking and money laundering. The US Congress imposed economic sanctions to press him to leave power.
With its 100-bank financial centre, Panama was used to launder bales of drug cash through banks and as a centre for the processing and transshipment of cocaine, with multimillion dollar kickbacks going directly to Noriega.
Once a US ally, Noriega was captured in Panama in January 1990 two weeks after US troops invaded the country in the largest American military intervention at the time since the Vietnam War.
After being brought to Miami to stand trial, he was declared a prisoner of war. He was convicted there of drug trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy in 1992.
Noriega’s French legal team plans to argue that his alleged crimes took place when he was a head of state and he should have immunity from prosecution, said one of Noriega’s two lawyers in France, Yves Leberquier. They will also contend that a statute of limitations meant he could no longer be prosecuted and that the statute granted to him in the United States as a prisoner of war would need to be respected in France, Leberquier told France Info radio.
“In principle, the maximum prison term he faces is 10 years, but this poses a certain number of difficulties for French justice, difficulties that we think are insurmountable,” Leberquier said.
On the streets of Panama City, most people remember Noriega as a brutal dictator and only a few staunch supporters lamented his extradition.