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Noriega Found Guilty of Eight Drug, Racketeering Charges : Courts: He is convicted of allowing the Medellin cartel to ship cocaine through Panama to the United States. The ousted strongman faces up to 120 years in prison.

April 10, 1992|ROBERT L. JACKSON and MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — Deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega was convicted of eight of 10 drug and racketeering charges Thursday, two years after the United States took the extraordinary step of invading his country and arresting him.

The jury returned its verdict on the fifth day of deliberations, just 11 hours of discussion after it had signaled to U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler that it feared it was deadlocked.

Noriega, 58, sitting ramrod straight in his general's uniform at the defense table, showed no emotion as a court clerk read "guilty" verdicts on eight charges and "not guilty" verdicts on two lesser charges. Seated nearby in the front row of the packed courtroom were his wife, Felicidad, and three grown daughters, two of whom wiped tears from their eyes as they listened.

As the courtroom emptied, defense attorney Frank A. Rubino put his arm around Noriega's shoulder and whispered briefly to him. Noriega--who never took the stand in his own defense--then was led away by U.S. marshals to a private room to confer with his family.

Hoeveler set sentencing for July 10.

Convicted of allowing Colombia's Medellin drug cartel to ship tons of U.S.-bound cocaine through Panama in return for cash payoffs, Noriega could receive a maximum sentence of 120 years in prison and almost $1 million in fines.

President Bush hailed the verdict as "a major victory against the drug lords."

"He was accorded a free and fair trial and he was found guilty," Bush said during a picture-taking session at the start of a meeting in the White House with Nicaraguan President Violetta Barrios de Chamorro.

"I hope it sends a lesson to drug lords here and around the world that they'll pay a price if they continue to poison the lives of our kids in this country or anywhere else."

The verdict was crucial for the Bush Administration, which took a politically risky step when it invaded Panama in December, 1989. The invasion ultimately brought Noriega to trial. Not guilty verdicts or a hung jury would have been deeply embarrassing to the White House.

Rubino, declaring that he is "bitter" about the verdict, called the trial "a political case, not a drug case." He said he would appeal the verdict as far as the Supreme Court, charging government misconduct, including the invasion.

"A new page has been written in American history," Rubino said. "The U.S. government, in its role as world policeman, saw fit to invade a country and seize its leader. The jury has condoned that action and sent a message to the rest of the world's leaders that you too may soon be in our courthouse."

Calling Noriega's prosecution "a modern-day version of the Crusades," Rubino said that "the United States is trampling across the entire world imposing its will unless they (foreign leaders) are willing to kneel once a day and face Washington and give praise to George Bush."

He said Noriega had no personal reaction, although his family was "horribly dejected about the verdict."

Authorities said Noriega, after his sentencing, still must face another federal indictment in Tampa on charges of massive marijuana smuggling into the United States. In addition, the government of Panama hopes to try him on charges that he ordered the murder of a political opponent in 1985 and committed acts of malfeasance in office.

James McAdams, acting U.S. attorney in Miami, said he has no idea when or if Noriega will be sent to Panama to face such charges. Officials expect him to be sentenced to a heavy prison term in the United States.

Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, in a statement released in Washington, called the verdict a "historic accomplishment and a great victory for the rule of law and for the American people."

Lead prosecutor Michael P. Sullivan attributed the outcome to "so much effort by so many prosecutors, agents and staff," and said: "It was worth it all."

Panamanians rejoiced after learning that their former dictator had been convicted.

"This act of justice closes a disgraceful chapter of Panamanian history," President Guillermo Endara said in Panama City.

"It would have only been just to find him guilty and this is what they did . . . . Panamanians . . . knew perfectly well that we were witnessing the first narco-military dictatorship in history."

The trial began Sept. 5 and lasted seven months--including a seven-week recess after Christmas while the judge recuperated from emergency heart surgery--and testimony filled 17,000 pages.

The government put 51 witnesses on the stand to prove its case, including at least 18 confessed or convicted drug offenders, some of whom gave firsthand accounts of payoffs to Noriega by Colombian drug lords.

The jury subsequently convicted Noriega of all charges that he accepted cash payments for protecting cocaine shipments through Panama from 1981 through 1986. Key testimony came from the government's star witness, Floyd Carlton-Caceres, the former confidant and personal pilot whom Noriega had sent as his emissary to the Medellin cartel.

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