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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.

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“The Prisoner of War Convention requires the immediate return home of prisoners of war at the end of hostilities subject to completion of any sentence imposed for crimes prosecuted by the detaining power,” wrote Miami lawyer Jon May in his brief on behalf of Noriega. “Only in the case of war criminals is any exception permitted.”

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Not so, countered Solicitor General Elena Kagan in her brief. “The Third Geneva Convention does not prohibit the extradition of a prisoner of war to face criminal charges in another country,” she wrote. “[Noriega’s] challenges to that conclusion lack merit.”

Ms. Kagan said the conventions permit a detaining country to transfer a POW to another country to face pending criminal charges once the detaining country is satisfied that the receiving country will abide by the Geneva Conventions. She said these requirements have been satisfied by means of diplomatic communications between the US and France.

The solicitor general also cited the Military Commissions Act (MCA) as barring prisoners from invoking the Geneva Accords as a source of rights.

Congress intended that the Geneva Conventions not be judicially enforceable in any court in the US, she said.

Noriega’s lawyers argued that the rights of “hundreds” of US prisoners were at risk. The government’s interpretation of the MCA renders the statute unconstitutional, Mr. May said.

Restrictions to a prisoner’s ability to claim the right of habeas corpus can themselves result in an unconstitutional suspension of the writ. “By denying the courts the authority to consider violations of the Geneva Convention, Congress has done just that,” May wrote.

The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this argument, ruling that Noriega lacked the authority to claim a private right of action under the Geneva Conventions. In addition, the court found that the US had complied with the Geneva Accords and that Noriega’s extradition to France would not violate his rights under the Third Geneva Convention.

How Noriega came into US custody

Noriega’s case is unique because of the circumstances surrounding his capture and arrest.

After Noriega declared war on the US in 1989, 58,000 US troops invaded Panama. A group of Navy SEALS were tasked to find and capture him in Operation Nifty Package.

Noriega eventually fled to the Vatican Embassy. US forces surrounded the building and blasted rock music at the embassy around the clock – including “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.”

Two weeks after the invasion, Noriega surrendered and was ushered into a waiting C-130 transport plane where Drug Enforcement Administration agents placed him under arrest. He was charged with cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering.

Later, the judge in his case found that Noriega, in addition to being a criminal defendant, must be treated by the US government as a prisoner of war because of the special circumstances of his capture.

The designation meant Noriega was permitted to wear his uniform during the trial and was given more spacious quarters in federal prison and special furnishings in his cell. He also received visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross.


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