Ex-Panama dictator Noriega faces prison pending retrial

PARIS (Reuters) – Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega must remain in prison pending a retrial in France on money laundering charges, a judge ruled yesterday after the convicted drug smuggler was extradited from the United States.

His lawyers had been seeking an immediate release, but a judge said Noriega could not be trusted to stay in France if he was freed on bail. “His release … would certainly lead to an escape abroad,” the judge told an open hearing.

Noriega, 76, a tough slum kid who muscled his way to the top of Panama’s military before he was overthrown in a 1989 US invasion, looked frail as he boarded a plane to Paris from Miami, where he completed a 17-year sentence on drug charges.

He was convicted in France in his absence in 1999 for money laundering and will now face a new trial in the next two months.

Until then, he will stay in Paris’s La Sante prison, already home to another famous foreign inmate, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal — a Venezuelan radical sentenced to a life term for murder.

Noriega, the former self-declared “Maximum Leader” of Panama, was tried and convicted in a Miami court in 1992 of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. He said he was innocent and had helped U.S. intelligence and anti-drug efforts.

He was subsequently found guilty in France of laundering cocaine profits through French banks and using the money to buy three luxury apartments here. The former general, known for his burly figure and pockmarked face that earned him the nickname of “Pineapple Face”, was whisked out of Charles de Gaulle airport on arrival and to the Justice Court, where he was placed under arrest.

“He is old and sick … he had a stroke about four years ago and it has left him a little handicapped on the right hand side,” said Yves Leberquier, one of Noriega’s French lawyers.

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