Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, fresh out of a Miami prison where he spent two decades, was sent back behind bars in France on Tuesday to await a new legal battle — this time on charges he laundered cocaine profits by buying luxury apartments in Paris.
Hours after Noriega arrived in Paris following his extradition from the United States, a judge deemed him a flight risk and dispatched him to La Sante, a grim brick prison in southern Paris. Famous past La Sante inmates include convicted terrorist Carlos the Jackal and Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon.
|A 1990 photo, supplied by the US District Attorney's office, shows former Panamian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega in Miami, Florida.|
Noriega lost his first battle on French territory — he unsuccessfully pressed a judge to send him home to Panama. If convicted in France, he could face another 10 years in prison, a daunting prospect for the 72-year-old. Noriega's French lawyers said they will appeal the decision putting him behind bars and say his detention and transfer are unlawful.
If Noriega had been released in France, even to house arrest, it would have been a victory after a generation in prison. It could also have been an awkward situation for France, where a string of former dictators from Haiti to Africa have settled or bought second homes in the past.
Officials are to set a trial date on May 12 for Noriega, who was deposed after a 1989 U.S. invasion and imprisoned in Florida for drug trafficking. After finishing his U.S. sentence, he was extradited from Miami and sent on a direct flight to Paris, where he was immediately served with an arrest warrant Tuesday.
France already has convicted Noriega and his wife in absentia of laundering some $7 million in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three posh Paris apartments. But France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited. Noriega's wife, Felicidad Sieiro de Noriega, is living in Panama and faces no charges there.
In a hearing before Paris judge Jean-Michel Maton, Noriega pleaded to be sent home to Panama, citing his prisoner of war status. "I don't agree with the action against me," he said through a translator.
Noriega spoke little during the hearing and appeared tired. Wearing a white button-up shirt and black jacket, his black hair thinning, he periodically rested his head in one hand during the proceedings.
After the judge denied Noriega's request, he was escorted out a side door of the court by armed guards. Limping, he used a cane.
Yves Leberquier, a lawyer for Noriega, said the former dictator has been partially paralyzed since suffering a mild stroke four years ago.
Another of Noriega's lawyers said his client had seemed resigned to returning behind bars.
"Having been extradited from the U.S., he was not really expecting to be released tonight, even if he hoped for it," Olivier Metzner said.
Noriega's legal team 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.
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, said 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 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.
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.