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Friday, September 20 2019 @ 02:08 pm EDT

Ex-Panama dictator Noriega on trial in France

Panama News
Manuel Antonio Noriega
Manuel Antonio Noriega
By Carole Landry (AFP) – PARIS — Panama's ex-dictator Manuel Noriega goes on trial in Paris on Monday, accused of laundering Colombian drug money in French banks, in a case that could land him in jail for another 10 years. The 76-year-old general, who ruled Panama from 1981 to 1989, was extradited from the United States to Paris in late April after serving two decades in a Miami jail. A French court in 1999 had sentenced Noriega in absentia to 10 years in prison, but for years the ex-leader had fought extradition until a US Supreme Court ruling quashed his last appeal. The pock-marked general known as "Pineapple Face" is being re-tried on charges of laundering 2.3 million euros (15 million francs at the time) from the Medellin cocaine cartel through the now defunct BCCI bank. 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.

Now looking frail from age and after two decades spent in a US jail, Noriega denies 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. Since Noriega's extradition to France on April 26, his lawyers have unsuccessfully fought to win his release from La Sante prison in Paris, arguing that the general is being held in inhumane conditions. Judges have turned down the requests, citing a flight risk. 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.

Noriega himself has invoked his immunity as a former head of state and also spoke of his failing health to try to win back his freedom and return to his home country. He suffers from partial paralysis and high blood pressure. Panama has asked France to hand him 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. The trial will last just three days and a verdict is not expected for several months. The court could decide to uphold the previous conviction and sentence of 10 years in jail.

During the 1980s, the one-time leader turned his strategically important central American country into an international hub for narco-trafficking and money-laundering. France had awarded him the Legion of Honour, the nation's highest decoration, in 1987 for his efforts to boost relations but earlier this month, he was notified that he may be stripped of the order if convicted. Once a prized CIA asset, Noriega fell out with Washington in the late 1980s over his involvement in drug trafficking and suspicions that he was collaborating with communist Cuba. In December 1989, then US president George H. Bush sent troops to invade Panama to capture Noriega and bring him to the United States to face trial. After Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican embassy, US troops surrounded the building, blasting heavy metal music to wear down his resistance. A 10-day standoff ended on January 2, 1990, when Noriega walked out of the embassy and surrendered to US forces who flew him to Miami in Florida. Convicted on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison. That sentence was reduced to 17 years for good behaviour.

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