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THE NATION

Noriega is cleared for extradition

The former Panamanian dictator can be sent to France once he leaves U.S. prison, a federal judge rules.

August 25, 2007|Vanessa Blum | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — A federal judge in Miami cleared the way Friday for the United States to extradite Manuel Noriega to France upon his completion of a federal drug trafficking sentence, ending a tug of war over the former Panamanian dictator's fate.

In a 12-page opinion, U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler rejected arguments from Noriega's lawyers that the proposed transfer would violate his rights as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention.

"This court never intended for the proclamation of defendant as a POW to shield him from all future prosecutions for serious crimes he is alleged to have committed," Hoeveler wrote.

The ruling is a victory for government lawyers who backed Noriega's extradition to France, where he was convicted in absentia in 1999 on money laundering charges.

Noriega's attorneys argued he should instead be returned to Panama.

A hearing to determine whether there is probable cause to support the extradition -- all but a formality in this case, lawyers say -- is set for Tuesday. Noriega, 72, who has been behind bars for nearly 18 years, is set to be released from a Miami prison Sept. 9.

Frank Rubino, Noriega's attorney, said he would confer with "the general" about filing an emergency appeal.

"It's horribly disappointing," Rubino said. "I really thought Hoeveler would do the right thing and respect the Geneva Convention."

Georgette Sosa Douglass, a Fort Lauderdale attorney born in Panama, said she was "dancing" in her kitchen after learning Noriega's extradition would move forward.

"I believe he should go to France," Douglass said. "If he's under indictment for having committed a crime, I believe he should go and stand trial."

French authorities allege Noriega deposited proceeds from his involvement in cocaine trafficking into French bank accounts in the late 1980s.

The transactions total approximately 15 million francs, about $3.15 million, according to court papers.

He is also accused of using drug proceeds to purchase three apartments in France.

If Noriega's extradition is approved by the court and Bush administration officials, he will be tried in France.

Panama also tried Noriega in absentia, convicting and sentencing him to two 20-year prison terms for ordering the assassination of two political opponents.

However, recent changes to Panamanian law permit prisoners older than 70 to seek house arrest, raising questions about whether Noriega would spend any time behind bars if repatriated.

In Panama, taxi driver Juan Camargo, 44, bristled over reports that Noriega supporters had started renovating the strongman's house to welcome him back.

"They shouldn't bring him to a nicely painted home but straight to justice for all the bad things he's done to Panama," Camargo said.

Hoeveler, who presided over Noriega's original trial and declared him a prisoner of war, said the Geneva Convention does not prohibit extradition.

"It would be absurd to suggest that a civilian facing the identical criminal charges, i.e., money laundering in connection with drug trafficking, would be subject to extradition when a POW would not," Hoeveler's ruling states.

Noriega's attorneys claimed that government officials in Panama feared Noriega's return and secretly backed his transfer to France.

In 1989, the United States invaded Panama, forcing Noriega from power. He was captured and flown to Miami to face drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges. Three years later, a Miami federal jury convicted him of protecting U.S.-bound Colombian cocaine shipments that went through Panama in the 1980s.

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