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Noriega loses 2nd appeal of extradition

The ex-Panamanian leader will probably face trial in France.

September 08, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega lost a second appeal of an extradition order Friday and probably will be heading to France to face trial on money-laundering charges soon after his U.S. prison term ends Sunday.

U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler rejected arguments that Noriega's status as a prisoner of war would be violated under the judicial system in France, where he would be tried as a common criminal.

Noriega attorney Frank Rubino immediately filed notice that he would ask the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to review the decision.

Lawyers for the U.S. government on Thursday presented Hoeveler with assurances from French officials that Noriega, 73, would be held in the same conditions as mandated for POWs under the Geneva Convention and that were accorded the Panamanian general during his 17 years of U.S. incarceration.

Hoeveler, who presided over Noriega's 1992 trial and conviction on drug-trafficking, racketeering and money-laundering charges, had designated Noriega a POW in recognition of his capture by U.S. forces after their December 1989 invasion toppled his military dictatorship.

Long considered a valuable U.S. ally in covert actions against Latin American leftist movements, Noriega ran afoul of official Washington in the late 1980s when a congressional inquiry concluded that he was green-lighting Colombian drug shipments through his country to the United States. He was also accused of human rights violations and election rigging. As relations soured, a tense standoff ensued between Noriega's army and U.S. troops patrolling the Panama Canal, prompting the invasion.

Though the French government has promised to hold Noriega separately from other prisoners and in facilities similar to the apartment-like cell where he was incarcerated while in U.S. federal custody near Miami, it has declined to label him a POW. It plans to try him in criminal court on charges that he laundered $3 million through French banks and real estate purchases.

Hoeveler lifted a temporary stay of extradition order he had issued Wednesday, when Rubino alleged that the U.S. government was about to spirit the Panamanian abroad before his scheduled release from prison Sunday.

"That unsupported, inflammatory and outlandish allegation is completely untrue," Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Patrick Sullivan told Hoeveler on Thursday. He also reminded the judge that extradition is a responsibility of the executive, not the judiciary, under the president's "powers to conduct foreign affairs," limiting the judge's role to determining whether Noriega's POW status would be respected.

In an accompanying affidavit, the State Department legal advisor handling Noriega's case, Clifton M. Johnson, told the court that Washington had been provided detailed information from Paris about the defendant's incarceration arrangements.

"Based on that information, we can confirm that France does indeed intend to afford him all the same rights that he was afforded during his incarceration in the United States," Johnson said.

Hoeveler denied the Panamanian's challenge in a seven-page ruling, in which he reiterated his Aug. 24 determination that POW status didn't shield a defendant from criminal prosecution.

A State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said Noriega's extradition would be a matter of "pretty quick action" once his legal challenges were exhausted. The U.S. has said it will not transfer Noriega to France while appeals are pending, although it was unclear whether or when the 11th Circuit Court would review Hoeveler's rulings.

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