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Judge upholds extradition for Noriega

January 10, 2008|Vanessa Blum | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

MIAMI — A federal judge on Wednesday approved U.S. plans to send former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to France to face money-laundering charges, finding the French government had given sufficient assurances it would continue to treat Noriega as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Paul Huck followed three other court decisions approving extradition. Noriega's attorneys had expressed concern over France's refusal to formally designate the former military strongman a prisoner of war.

"Without that status of being declared a prisoner of war, there is no guarantee he will continue to receive those benefits" of the designation, said Jon May, one of Noriega's attorneys.

But Huck said he was satisfied with France's commitment to give Noriega, 73, the protections of the Geneva Convention without the POW label.

"What more could Noriega ask for or be entitled to?" Huck asked. "It's the benefits. It's not the nicety that he's called a prisoner of war."

Assistant U.S. Atty. Sean Cronin said, "France will behave in the exact same way the United States has behaved in the past 15-plus years." A 1992 order declared Noriega a POW.

The United States invaded Panama in 1989, forcing Noriega from power.

He was captured and flown to Miami to face charges of drug trafficking and money laundering.

A Miami federal jury convicted him in 1992 of protecting U.S.-bound Colombian cocaine shipments that went through Panama in the 1980s.

Noriega's prison term formally ended Sept. 9, but he remains in legal limbo as attorneys wrangle over his fate.

The U.S. government wants Noriega extradited to France. Noriega's lawyers have promised to appeal extradition.

"Gen. Noriega is being illegally held right this minute by the United States," said Frank Rubino, another Noriega lawyer.

His lawyers say Noriega should be returned to Panama. The law there allows prisoners older than 70 to seek house arrest, raising questions about whether he would spend any more time behind bars if he is repatriated.

In 1999, France convicted Noriega in absentia on money-laundering charges. French authorities allege that he funneled roughly $3.15 million in drug proceeds into French bank accounts in the late 1980s. He is also accused of using drug proceeds to purchase three apartments in France. He will receive a new trial if the extradition goes forward.

U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, who presided over the criminal trial and declared Noriega a prisoner of war, issued two rulings last year indicating he did not see POW status as an obstacle to extradition.

He said Noriega's status should not protect him from future prosecutions for serious crimes. U.S. Magistrate William Turnoff also approved the extradition.

The matter is now heading to a federal appeals court.

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