Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega faced money laundering charges in a French courtroom Tuesday after being extradited from the United States, opening up a whole new legal battle for the strongman who spent two decades behind bars in Florida for drug trafficking.
French authorities claim that Noriega, who was ousted in a U.S. invasion in 1989, had laundered some $7 million in drug profits by purchasing luxury apartments with his wife in Paris. Noriega was convicted in absentia, but France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited.
The 72-year-old Noriega arrived Tuesday morning on a direct flight from Miami and was served with an international arrest warrant. He could face another 10 years in prison if convicted in France. French Justice Ministry spokesman Guillaume Didier has said Noriega could go on trial within two months.
Noriega's French lawyers are seeking his immediate release, saying his detention and transfer are unlawful. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed a surrender warrant for Noriega after a federal judge in Miami lifted a stay blocking his extradition last month.
Noriega appeared before prosecutors behind closed doors at the main Paris courthouse Tuesday and they read him the warrant. Later Tuesday, he appeared before a judge who will decide whether or not to keep him behind bars or release him under judicial supervision pending further action.
If Noriega is released, even to house arrest or under other strict legal controls, that would be a major victory after a generation behind bars. It could also be an awkward situation for France, where a string of former dictators from Haiti to West Africa have settled in the past, sometimes in luxurious homes purchased with money of dubious origin.
Yves Leberquier, Noriega's French lawyer, said the former dictator is half-paralyzed since suffering from a mild stroke four years ago.
"The man appears to be very weak," said Olivier Metzner, another of his French lawyers.
Leberquier argued that it was illegal to try a former head of state who should have immunity from prosecution.
Other legal objections are that Noriega is considered a prisoner of war, a status Leberquier said French jails aren't ready to accommodate, and that the charges against him are no longer valid because the acts he is accused of happened too long ago, the lawyer said.
Noriega was declared a POW after his 1992 drug conviction by a Miami federal judge. In Miami, Noriega had separate quarters in prison, the right to wear his military uniform and insignia, access to a television and monitoring by international rights groups.
"We're not here to eventually make a moral judgment, we've got legal rules that have to be applied and respected," Leberquier told AP. "For justice to be served, the judiciary must acknowledge it is incompetent to put him on trial" in France.
Panama also has an outstanding request for the former dictator's extradition. He was convicted in Panama in absentia and sentenced to 60 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, corruption and murdering opponents.
Panama's foreign minister, Juan Carlos Varela, told reporters that Panama respects the U.S. decision to extradite Noriega to France but will still try to get him back to Panama "to serve the sentences handed down by Panamanian courts."
Noriega was Panama's longtime intelligence chief before he took power in 1982. He had been considered a valued CIA asset for years, but as a ruler he joined forces with drug traffickers and was implicated in the death of a political opponent.
Noriega was ousted as Panama's leader and put on trial following a 1989 U.S. military invasion ordered by President George H.W. Bush. Noriega was brought to Miami and was convicted of drug racketeering and related charges in 1992.
He finished serving his term in federal prison outside Miami in 2007, but stayed in prison while France sought his extradition.
Sandra Noriega, one of his three daughters, called Noriega's extradition to France "a violation of his rights as a citizen, and a failing by the (Panamanian) government, which is supposed to protect its citizens."
The French indictment says Noriega was born in 1938, although his French lawyers say he was born four years earlier. As a youth he claimed to be older so he could enter a military academy.
France convicted Noriega and his wife in absentia of laundering a total of 35 million francs ($7 million) in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three posh Paris apartments.
His wife, Felicidad Sieiro de Noriega, is living in Panama and faces no charges there.
The in-absentia French conviction, obtained by The Associated Press, 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.
Associated Press writers Alfred de Montesquiou and Angela Charlton in Paris and Juan Zamorano in Panama City contributed to this report.
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