MIAMI – U.S. District Judge William C. Turnoff ruled here Aug. 28 that former Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega can be extradited to France, where he is accused of money laundering.
The U.S. State Department must now decide whether to send Noriega to Paris next week after the 72-year-old general’s Sept. 9 release from the federal prison near Miami, Florida, where he has served 17 years of a 30-year sentence for drug-trafficking and money laundering.
Noriega, who ruled Panama from 1983-1989, had his sentence reduced for good behavior.
France has requested the extradition of Noriega, who was found guilty there in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1999 for laundering some $3.1 million.
The French government has promised to give the Panamanian a new trial if he is extradited.
Attorneys for Noriega said in the wake of last week’s ruling that they were studying filing a new habeas corpus motion with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Another option is to appeal the ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Turnoff ’s ruling came after Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler turned down an earlier habeas corpus motion seeking to block Noriega’s extradition. Hoeveler rejected defense lawyers’ argument that sending Noriega to France would violate the former dictator’s rights as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention (NT,Aug. 10).
It was Hoeveler who ruled in 1992 that Noriega had POW status by virtue of his having been captured during the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama.
But in a 12-page document Aug. 24, the judge said his previous designation of Noriega as a POW was in response to the Panamanian’s concerns at that time about the treatment he would receive in U.S. custody. Defense attorneys Frank Rubino and Jon May insist that under the Geneva Convention, their client is entitled to be repatriated to Panama, where he has already been convicted of two murders.
Rubino said last month that he suspects the U.S. and Panamanian governments encouraged France to file the extradition request.
As to why France would go along with the scheme, Rubino said Paris was motivated to stay on the good side of the Panamanian government.
“Statements by the French Ambassador to Panama, Pierre Henry Guignard, provide reason to believe that the French are seeking Gen. Noriega’s extradition as a quid pro quo for a $300 million contract to sell high-speed trains to Panama,” the defense lawyers said in their court filing for the habeas corpus motion.
Rubino also said corrupt officials in Panama fear a possible return to power by Noriega, who spent years on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s payroll before he fell out with Washington and was indicted by a U.S. federal prosecutor on drug charges.
Panama’s Foreign Minister, Samuel Lewis, said that his government had done everything possible to ensure Noriega was sent home to face justice in the two murder cases.
It has been suggested that Noriega prefers going back to Panama, despite his murder convictions there, because he assumes his advanced age would make him eligible for house arrest.