Manuel Noriega, Ex-Panama dictator, goes to trial in France

Manuel Noriega took the stand only briefly Monday to give his name and age, but appeared feeble, his shoulders trembling as he addressed the three-judge panel.

By , Associated Press

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    Manuel Noriega talks to reporters in Panama City in this 1988 file photo.
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As Manuel Noriega went on trial in France for money laundering, the former Panamanian dictator was not allowed to wear his trademark military fatigues and appeared confused about the most basic of biographical information: his age.

Noriega took the stand only briefly Monday to give his name and age, but the 76-year-old appeared feeble, his shoulders trembling uncontrollably as he addressed the three-judge panel.

Noriega's lawyers, meanwhile, complained about dirty, dilapidated conditions in the prison where he is being held. The former military strongman, who spent 20 years in U.S. custody for drug trafficking after being deposed in the 1989 invasion of his country, could return to prison for 10 years if he is convicted as charged in France.

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Noriega, who listened impassively to the proceedings through a translator, had his hair slicked back and wore a dark suit and red tie. He is not permitted to wear his military uniform in France since he is not being treated as a prisoner of war here — an issue hotly contested by his lawyers.

Noriega's three daughters were there to support him, and they huddled around the defendant's box — a wooden perimeter topped with a roof of metal fencing — during a break in the proceedings.

Asked how Noriega was dealing with the latest legal battle, one of his daughters, Sandra Noriega, suggested her father was resigned.

"He's going through all this because he has no choice," she told The Associated Press. "Really, he's looking forward to expressing his point of view and giving his version" of things on Tuesday.

On Monday, the former dictator started his brief testimony with a stumble, when he was asked about discrepancies in his date of birth on different legal documents. Speaking through a translator, Noriega initially said Feb. 11, 1936, then immediately corrected himself, saying he was born in 1934. There has long been confusion surrounding Noriega's true date of birth.

The French indictment says Noriega was born in 1938, although his legal team says he was born four years earlier. As a youth, he claimed to be older than he was to win a scholarship to a military academy in Peru, and his exact age remains in dispute.

After serving 20 years in a Florida prison for drug racketeering and money laundering, Noriega was extradited to Paris in April to face accusations that he tried to hide cocaine profits in French banks.

Since then, Noriega has been held at the La Sante prison in southern Paris. His lawyers argued Monday that the prison is unfit for a man of his age and rank — as a former head of state accorded prisoner of war status in the U.S. During his incarceration in Miami, Noriega had separate quarters in a minimum-security prison and the right to wear his military uniform and insignia.

Yves Leberquier, one of Noriega's lawyers, read from a report by an EU human rights commissioner condemning the state of La Sante as "at the limits of human dignity."

Noriega's cell measures 2 meters by 3 meters (7 feet by 10 feet), Leberquier said, adding that the prison conditions were especially worrisome considering Noriega's health. Noriega suffers from blood pressure problems and is paralyzed on the left side as a result of a stroke four years ago, he said.

Another defense lawyer, Olivier Metzner, noted the "immense services" Noriega carried out for France, and pointed out that he was made commander in the Legion of Honor.

Both defense lawyers argued that under international law, France is obliged to accord Noriega POW status and that by not doing so, the country is shirking its international responsibilities.

The public prosecutor, Michel Maes, countered that because Noriega is facing common law charges that had nothing to do with his functions as a head of state, France was under no obligation to treat him as a POW. Maes also mocked Noriega's lawyers' complaints, saying it wasn't a hardship for the general to go without his medals.

Much of Monday's proceedings were devoted to a detailed summary of the allegations against Noriega. Judge Agnes Quantin detailed the complex financial manipulations allegedly used to feed accounts in France held by Noriega, his wife and daughters, as well as various Panamanian diplomats in Europe.

She also read summaries of testimony against Noriega, some of it provided to French authorities by their U.S. counterparts, giving details about Noriega's alleged dealings with the powerful Medellin cartel in Colombia.

Panama is seeking Noriega's extradition, bringing hope to his countrymen who want to see the former military strongman face justice at home for alleged torture and killings of opponents.

France already convicted Noriega and his wife in absentia in 1999 for laundering several million dollars in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three posh Paris apartments on the Left Bank.

France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited. Noriega's wife, Felicidad Sieiro de Noriega, is living in Panama and faces no charges there.

The in-absentia conviction, obtained by the AP, says Noriega "knew that (the money) came directly or indirectly from drug trafficking." It said he helped Colombia's Medellin drug cartel by authorizing the transport of cocaine through Panama en route to the United States.

Noriega has maintained that he fought against drug trafficking and that the money came from other sources, including payments from the CIA. He had been considered a valued CIA asset for years before he joined forces with drug traffickers and was implicated in the death of a political opponent.

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Associated Press writer Pierre-Antoine Souchard contributed to this report.

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