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Supreme Court won't halt Noriega's extradition to France

Noriega, the former Panama dictator who served time in the US for drug trafficking, had argued he should be returned to Panama rather than sent to France for prosecution there. The Supreme Court refused Monday to hear his case even though, one justice said, it could help to clarify the legal rights of Guantanamo terrorism suspects.

By Staff writer / January 25, 2010

This 20 May 1988 photo shows Panamanian General Manuel Antonio Noriega speaking during a military ceremony in Panama City. On Monday, the US Supreme Court refused to take up an appeal from the former strongman against his extradition to France where he is wanted on money laundering charges.

Angel Murillo/AFP/File

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Former Panama dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega has lost his appeal to avoid extradition to France on money laundering charges.

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On Monday, the US Supreme Court refused to take up his case. The action lets stand a lower court decision approving his removal to face criminal charges in a French court, where he was tried and convicted in absentia and faces up to 10 years in prison.

Two justices – Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia – issued a dissent, saying the high court should have agreed to hear Mr. Noriega’s appeal.

Although Noriega is the only official prisoner of war currently in US custody, his appeal sought an examination of the constitutionality of legal provisions passed by Congress to undercut appeals on behalf of terrorism suspects at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp.

In answering Noriega’s appeal, the US solicitor general’s office cited the 2006 Military Commissions Act, which the government argued precludes a person detained as a POW from invoking the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights in a lawsuit challenging the legality of the POW’s detention.

In his dissent, Justice Thomas said the high court should examine the issues raised by Noriega. He said any resulting opinion would provide much-needed guidance to the lower courts in cases involving Al Qaeda suspects.

Noriega's special POW status

Issues raised in the appeal include whether the 2006 Military Commission Act, as enforced against Noriega, resulted in an unconstitutional suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. The appeal also questioned whether the protections of the Geneva Conventions can be invoked by an individual POW and whether those protections may be enforced by US judges.

“It is incumbent upon us to provide what guidance we can on these issues now,” Thomas wrote in a 15-page dissent. “Whatever conclusion we reach, our opinion will help the political branches and the courts discharge their responsibilities over detainee cases, and will spare detainees and the government years of unnecessary litigation.”

The high court rejected Noriega’s appeal in a one-line order without explanation. No other justices wrote about the Noriega case.

Out of prison – and resisting extradition to France

Noriega was convicted in a 1992 trial in Miami of cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. His 40-year sentence was later reduced for good behavior. He completed his sentence in September 2007.

Since then, he’s been fighting extradition. Noriega’s lawyers argued that as a prisoner of war he should be sent home to Panama now that his US prison sentence has been served.

Although he was a criminal defendant, the judge at Noriega’s trial in Miami also ruled that the US government must treat him as a prisoner of war because of his surrender to US military forces during the 1989 US invasion of Panama. It was this POW status that his lawyers were seeking to use to force the US government to send Noriega home to Panama rather than to France.

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