Manuel Noriega extradited to French court after 20 years in US custody

Today, former US ally and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega appeared in a Paris court on charges of money laundering. He was extradited to France on Monday after two decades in a Miami jail.

By , Correspondent

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    In this image from video from WSVN-TV, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, wearing hat, right, arrives at Miami International Airport in Miami to board an Air France flight to Paris on Monday.
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A jet-lagged Manuel Noriega appeared in a French courtroom today after an overnight Air France flight from Miami to Paris.

At age 72 and after two decades in a Miami jail as the only official prisoner of war in US custody, the former Panamanian president now faces another 10 years in French prison if convicted of laundering $7 million in drug profits by purchasing luxury apartments in Paris in the 1980s.

Noriega’s flight departed Monday evening and arrived at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport in the early morning. He was then whisked to a courtroom to hear charges. After the hearing today, one of his French lawyers told the BBC that the aging former dictator appeared "much weakened" and was "receiving medical treatment."

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The extradition followed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s signing Monday of a surrender warrant for Noriega. He had been barred from leaving the US since his arrest in 1989, though last month a Miami federal judge lifted a stay blocking his extradition.

Former US ally

Like former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega was initially supported by the US government. The US trained him in intelligence and counterintelligence operations and he remained on the CIA's payroll until February 1988, proving himself an ally in the US-backed Contra war against the Sandanistas in Nicaragua. Noriega fell out of US favor, however, when as president he became involved in drug dealing and had a political opponent beheaded.

In December 1989, then-President George H. W. Bush launched “Operation Just Cause” and sent in US troops to capture Noriega. But Noriega, who had holed himself up in the Vatican embassy, refused to surrender until after a week of US forces’ repeatedly blaring the 1965 rock song “I Fought the Law" at the compound. Accounts differ on whether the song was blasted as a form of psychological torture or if it was used to cover up negotiations.

During his 1992 US trial, the US Army and CIA said it had given Noriega approximately $320,000, though Noriega said "the actual figure approached $10,000,000." He was sentenced to 40 years in prison, which was shortened to 30 years, which was then cut off at 17 years for good behavior in 2007.

Since then, however, the US has detained him in prison pending France’s extradition request.

No double jeopardy

Noriega was convicted in the US on charges of cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering, he is now charged for separate money laundering in France.

As such, says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the new charges appear unique and do not qualify as double jeopardy. And while Noriega's lawyers have said they will challenge the charges based on the French statute of limitations, Professor Hannum says that charges of money laundering – when serious enough – do not fall inside a specific time frame and can still be tried.

Perhaps more importantly is that, after all these years, Panamanians should finally feel a sense of closure.

"Is it really worth [another trial] at this stage?" says Hannum. "The ones who can answer that question are not so much the French but the Panamanians."

Panamanians may well be pleased to see Noriega back in the dock, says Hannum, considering the atrocities he commited.

"I think that many leaders these days probably receive credit for standing up to the US or the local regional power, and Noriega did that, but I don’t recall at the time he was arrested that there were any demonstrations for his release," says Hannum.

However, when Noriega's jail sentence ended in 2007, many Panamanians said they wanted him home and the chapter closed forever.

"He is a Panamanian; he should come back and face what he did here. If he goes to France, when he is ready to be released there, it will all start over again," Roberto Hazlewood, a lifelong resident of El Chorrillo, the neighborhood that bore the brunt of the 1989 invasion, told The Christian Science Monitor in 2007.

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