Noriega goes on trial in Paris
Ex-Panama leader faces charges of laundering Colombian drug money in French banks.
Last Modified: 28 Jun 2010 14:35 GMT
Manuel Noriega is being re-tried on charges of laundering $2.84m in the 1980s [AP]

Manuel Noriega, Panama's former military leader, has gone on trial in Paris, accused of laundering Colombian drug money in French bank accounts in the 1980s.

The 76-year-old, who was extradited to the French capital in late April after finishing a 20-year jail sentence in the United States, calmly gave his name as he stood before three judges of a Paris criminal court.

Monday's trial comes more than a decade after a French court sentenced Noriega in absentia to 10 years in prison for laundering several million dollars in cocaine profits through three major French banks.

France agreed to grant him a retrial if he was extradited, and he will now face charges of laundering $2.84m from the Medellin cocaine cartel through the now defunct BCCI bank.

'CIA asset'

The money funnelled in the late 1980s was allegedly used by his wife Felicidad, and a shell company, to buy three luxury apartments in Paris that have since been seized by the French state.

The in-absentia conviction, according to the AP news agency, said Noriega "knew that [the money] came directly or indirectly from drug trafficking".

But Noriegia has denied taking money from the cocaine dealers and claims the funds were from his brother's inheritance, his wife's fortune and payments made to him by the CIA.

He had been considered a valued CIA asset for years before he joined forces with drug traffickers and was implicated in the death of a political opponent.

Since his extradition to France on April 26, Noriega's lawyers have unsuccessfully fought to win his release from La Sante prison in Paris, arguing that the general is being held in inhumane conditions.

They also argue that as a former head of state he is immune from prosecution and that French courts have no right to try him.

The general's lawyers have appealed to the Red Cross, arguing that their client is being held in a decrepit prison, deprived of his uniform, his medals and without access to a Spanish-speaking doctor.

They have also said that the former leader has been partially paralysed since suffering a mild stroke four years ago.

On Monday, lawyer Yves Leberquier, challenged the Paris judges to visit the prison and determine whether the conditions adhered to the Geneva Conventions.

Olivier Metzner, another of Noriega's lawyers, also noted to the court the "immense services" the former leader had paid to France, adding he was made commander in the Legion of Honour.

France awarded Noriega the honour, the nations highest decoration, in 1987 for his efforts to boost relations. But he is likely to be stripped of the order if convicted.

Panama has asked France to hand Noriega over to face trial for human rights atrocities, but Paris has said that will not happen before the case against him in France has run its course.

A verdict is not expected for several months. 

Age discrepancy

The French indictment says Noriega was born in 1938, although his legal team says he was born four years earlier.

As a youth, he claimed to be older than he was to win a scholarship to a military academy in Peru and his exact age remains in dispute.

Asked on Monday about the discrepancies, Noriega initially said he was born on February 11, 1936, and then immediately corrected himself, saying he was born in 1934.

Dressed in a dark suit, and with his black hair slicked back, he spoke through a translator.

Noriega ruled Panama from 1981 to 1989, when he was deposed after a US invasion.

He is said to have turned his strategically important central American country into an
international hub for narco-trafficking and money-laundering.

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