Panama’s Manuel Noriega extradited from US to France

Manuel Noriega, pictured in 1996

The former Panamanian leader, Manuel Noriega, has arrived in France after being extradited from the US, where he has served more than 20 years in jail.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier signed a “surrender warrant” after all judicial challenges ended.  Noriega was convicted in France in his absence in 1999 for laundering money but is likely to face a new trial.  Noriega is now expected to go before prosecutors in Paris to be notified of the arrest warrant against him.  His French lawyer said he would argue that French courts did not have the jurisdiction to try his client.

Detention ruling

Noriega had wanted to be sent back to Panama after finishing his 17-year jail sentence in 2007.   But in February the US Supreme Court rejected his final appeal against extradition to France.  Panama’s government said it respected the “sovereign decision” the state department took to extradite Noriega, who is in his mid-70s.

But it insisted it would seek his return to serve outstanding prison sentences there.  Noriega was escorted on to an Air France passenger jet at Miami International Airport on Monday afternoon, shortly after Mrs Clinton signed the extradition order, US officials said.  French prison officials took custody of him once he was on board.

Noriega’s plane arrived in the French capital shortly before 0800 local time (0600 GMT) on Tuesday.

A spokesman for the French justice ministry, Guillaume Didier, said that Noriega would appear before prosecutors to be notified of the arrest warrant against him and a judge would decide whether to place him under temporary detention until his case was referred to a criminal court.  Agence France-Presse news agency quoted Mr Didier as saying that Noriega could go on trial within two months.

Noriega’s lawyer in France, Yves Leberquier, said he would challenge French jurisdiction on the grounds of his client’s immunity from prosecution as a former head of state and because the statute of limitations had expired.  “We’re not here to eventually make a moral judgment, we’ve got legal rules that have to be applied and respected,” Associated Press quoted him as saying.

‘Prisoner of war’

Mr Didier said France had been notified of the extradition two weeks ago.  But Noriega’s lawyer in Miami, Frank Rubino, told the BBC he had not been notified and had only learned of his client’s transfer from the media.  “Usually the government has – does things in a more professional manner and respects common courtesy and we’re shocked that they didn’t,” he said.  “I’m surprised that they didn’t put a black hood over his head and drag him out in the middle of the night,” he added.

Noriega was Panama’s military intelligence chief for several years before becoming commander of the powerful National Guard in 1982 and then de facto ruler of the country.  He had been recruited by the CIA in the late 1960s and was supported by the US until 1987.  But in 1988 he was indicted in the US on charges of drug trafficking.   After a disputed parliamentary election the following year, Noriega declared a “state of war”.

A tense stand-off followed between US forces stationed in the Panama Canal zone and Panamanian troops.  By mid-December, the situation had worsened so much that President George H W Bush launched an invasion – ostensibly because a US marine had been killed in Panama City, although the operation had long been planned.  Noriega initially took refuge in the Vatican embassy, where US troops bombarded him for days with deafening pop and heavy metal music.  He eventually surrendered on 3 January 1990 and was taken to Miami for trial.  In 1992, he was convicted of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering.

He was handed a 40-year prison sentence, later reduced to 30 years, and then 17 years for good behaviour.  Noriega was convicted in absentia in France in 1999 for allegedly using $3m (£1.9m) in proceeds from the drug trade to buy luxury apartments in Paris, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.  Shortly before the completion of his US jail sentence, the French government sought Noriega’s extradition.

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