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French judge rules against Noriega
Former Panamanian leader must remain in prison pending a money laundering charge.
Last Modified: 28 Apr 2010 04:11 GMT
Noriega appeared before prosecutors at the Paris justice court to face money laundering charges [AFP]

A Paris judge has ruled that Manuel Noriega, the former military leader of Panama, will remain behind bars in France, pending a money laundering charge.

Noriega's lawyers called for his immediate release, citing his immunity as a former head of state, his age and his statute as a prisoner of war.

"We condemn the judgement and we will appeal it tonight," Olivier Metzner, one of his French lawyers, said on Tuesday.

"He will stay in prison, he will be transferred to the Sante prison tonight," Yves Leberquier, another lawyer for Noriega, said.

Guillaume Didier, a French justice ministry spokesman, said that the 76-year-old Noriega could go on trial within two months.

Noriega arrived early on Tuesday morning on a direct flight from the United States, where he spent two decades behind bars for drug trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy.

He had been convicted in absentia in France of laundering money from cocaine profits in 1999, but France agreed to a new trial if he was extradited.

Jurisdiction challenged

Despite finishing his prison sentence two years ago, Noriega remained in a Florida jail froom where he was fighting extradition.

French authorities claim Noriega, who was ousted in a US invasion of Panama in 1989, had laundered some $7m in drug profits by purchasing luxury apartments with his wife in Paris.

In video


Al Jazeera's Paul Werdel reports on Noriega's extradition from the United States to France

They also said that he helped Colombia's Medellin drug cartel by authorising the transport of cocaine through Panama to the US.

His French lawyers are seeking his immediate release, saying his detention and transfer are unlawful.

They will challenge French jurisdiction on the grounds of his immunity from prosecution as a former head of state and because the statute of limitations has expired.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, signed a surrender warrant for Noriega on Monday after a federal judge in Miami lifted a stay blocking his extradition last month.

"The only thing we know is what the press has told us," Frank Rubino, Noriega's principal lawyer in the US, told Al Jazeera.

"The US state depeartment did not have the common courtesy to call and tell us the extradition order has been signed or that the general was picked up on that order."

Half-paralyzed

Leberquier said that he is half-paralyzed since suffering from a mild stroke four years ago.

"The man appears to be very weak," Metzner said.

His lawyers argued that it was illegal to try a former head of state who should have immunity from prosecution.

Other legal defences are that Noriega is considered a prisoner of war, a status that his lawyers say French jails are not ready to accept.

They also claim that the charges against him are no longer valid because the acts he is accused of happened too long ago.

"For justice to be served, the judiciary must acknowledge it is incompetent to put him on trial," his lawyer said.

Noriega had separate quarters in prison, the right to wear his military uniform, access to a television and monitoring by international rights groups, following his 1992 drug conviction by a Miami federal judge.

Panama extradition

Panama also has an outstanding request for Noriega's extradition, after he was sentenced in absentia to 60 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, corruption and murdering opponents.

Juan Carlos Varela, Panama's foreign minister, said that Panama respects the US 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, Panama's former intelligence chief, had been considered a valued CIA asset for years after he took power in 1982.

However, he was ousted as Panama's leader and put on trial for drug racketeering and related charges following a 1989 US military invasion ordered by George Bush Senior, the then president of the US.

Sandra Noriega, Noriega's daughter, said that extradition to France was "a violation of his rights as a citizen, and a failing by the [Panamanian] government, which is supposed to protect its citizens".

Panama was once a major financial centre in Central America, and was used as a base to launder drug money through banks as well as a centre for the processing and transshipment of cocaine.

Multi-million dollar kickbacks went directly to Noriega during his tenure as head of the military from 1983 to 1990.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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