Ex-Panama dictator Noriega on trial in France

28th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Former Panama 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 in 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 he had fought extradition until a US Supreme Court ruling quashed his last appeal.

The pock-marked former 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 Bank of Credit and Commerce Industrial.

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 US Central Intelligence Agency.

Since Noriega's extradition on April 26, his lawyers have unsuccessfully fought to win his release from La Sante prison in Paris, arguing that he is being held in inhumane conditions.

Judges have turned down the requests, citing a flight risk.

Noriega's lawyers have appealed to the Red Cross, arguing that their client is being held in a decrepit prison, deprived of his military uniform and 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 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 money laundering case has run its course.

The trial will last just three days and a verdict is not expected for several months. The court could uphold the previous conviction and sentence of 10 years in jail.

During the 1980s, the one-time strongman turned his strategically important central American country into an international hub for narco-trafficking and money-laundering.

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, 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.

Convicted of drug trafficking and money laundering, Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison. That sentence was reduced to 17 years for good behaviour.

© 2010 AFP

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