Noriega: Released Dictator to France or Panama?

When former Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega, is released on parole after 17 years in an "apartment-like cell at a Southwest Miami prison" on September 9, 2007, he will face more legal battles. While the French government is hoping to extradite him to face money-laundering charges, the Panamanian government hopes to bring him to trial for the killing of political opponents during his time in power. While it seems that Washington would rather see him in France, Noriega would prefer to return to Panama, and is challenging the French extradition.

Noriega has been in prison since 1992, when he was convicted and sentenced to 30-40 years for protecting Colombian drug cartels which were shipping drugs to the US. His conviction in France dates from 1999, and sentences him to 10 years for laundering $3.15 million dollars of drug money in the purchases of luxury apartments. In Panama, Noriega is accused kidnapping, corruption, the beheading of political opponent Hugo Spadafora in 1985 and the 1989 killing of a group of army officers who tried to oust him, including Maj. Moisés Giroldi.

US Attorney Guy Lewis helped prosecute Noriega in 1992. He sees the Noriega case as a continuing and telling challenge for the US justice system. "This of course was the first time that a foreign leader had been indicted, arrested, brought to the US, prosecuted and convicted," he says. "For better or worse, this is the kind of case that seems to make [legal precedent] on a regular basis."

The US seems to prefer that Noriego go to France. According to Attorney John Mays, US courts classify Noriega as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions because he surrendered to US forces when they invaded Panama in 1989. Noriega, a once a Washington favorite and on the CIA payroll for years, was chased out when his corruption became so overt that it was an embarrassment to the administration of President George Bush Sr.. Though the Geneva Conventions clearly point to Noriega’s extradition to Panama, US lawyers have argued for sending Noriega to France. In fact, the French extradition request was filed by US attorneys.

An initial hearing in Miami occurred last Thursday, where Noriega was questioned by U.S. Magistrate William C. Turnoff. Noriega’s attorneys requested that U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, who deemed Noriega a prisoner of war at his trial, and also reduced his sentence by 10 years a decade ago, review the POW status, which would require Noriega to be returned to Panama when he is released.

Though several Panamanian governments have tried to extradite Noriega since 1991, none have been successful, and current President Martin Torrijos hasn’t tried to press the issue. Noriega’s lawyer Frank Rubino says that Panama is "not trying at all" to have Noriega repatriated. "They’re hiding in the background letting France have their citizen . . . In my opinion, they’re scared to death about his coming back … although as far as we know there is no political movement ready to embrace him."

According to the LA Times, the judge denied Noriega’s lawyers’ appeal for his release on bond after the extradition hearing. Noriega will have to stay in jail for the remaining seven weeks of his sentence. "Rubino’s claim that Noriega has ties to the community ‘as a resident of South Florida for 18 years and currently employed by the U.S. government’ drew laughter from the packed courtroom."

According to Noriega’s attorneys, US officials want Noriega to be sent to France in order to save current president Martin Torrijos from political embarrassment. Tom Brown of Reuters writes that "Panamanian President Martin Torrijos has denied accusations he agreed to let Noriega be sent to France as part of a secret deal with the U.S. and French governments to avoid political problems at home."

However, Marc Lacey of the New York Times writes that, due to the top to bottom corruption of Panama’s judicial system, Noriega would be unlikely to see any actual jail time if he did return to Panama. Noriega still has fans in Panama, where some of his former cronies still hold government positions.

Lacey quotes constitutional law professor and Noriega opponent Miguel Antonio Bernal as saying: "If he comes back, plenty of people are going to use his return for their own interest," "Those who believe in him will go to the airport to meet him. Those who hate him will protest. And some people will fear that he will open his mouth and tell all that he knows."