French court sentences Noriega to seven years in jail

7th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

A French court on Wednesday convicted Manuel Noriega of money-laundering and sentenced Panama's former dictator to seven years in jail after he spent two decades in a US prison.

The 76-year-old general showed no emotion as he heard the verdict through his Spanish interpreter in the Paris courtroom, dressed in a black suit and white shirt.

The court ordered the seizure of 2.3 million euros (2.8 million dollars) in frozen French bank accounts held in Noriega's name in a judgement that his lawyers slammed as "extremely severe."

Noriega is "downhearted and surprised by this decision which he can hardly comprehend," his lawyer Yves Leberquier said.

Co-defence lawyer Olivier Metzner said the verdict was part of a process of "political score-settling... which pleases the American authorities."

During three days of hearings last week, Noriega denied taking payments from Colombian drug lords in the 1980s and said he was framed by his one-time sponsor and ally, the United States.

The ageing ex-military leader testified that Washington had turned against him in the 1980s when he refused to allow Panama to become a staging ground for operations against leftists across Central America.

Prosecutors had sought the maximum 10-year jail sentence for Noriega, who has already served two decades in a Florida jail and was extradited from the United States to France in April.

Leberquier described the sentence as "extremely severe" and said the defence would take 10 days to decide on an appeal.

Noriega's lawyers had argued that a long jail term would amount to a life sentence for the general, who suffers from partial paralysis and high blood pressure.

A French court had sentenced Noriega to 10 years in jail when he was tried in absentia in 1999 on charges of laundering the equivalent of 2.3 million euros from the Medellin drug cartel through French banks.

The drug money funnelled in the late 1980s was used by Noriega's wife and a shell company to buy three luxury apartments in Paris, according to the prosecution.

The ex-military leader was given a re-trial as part of the terms for his extradition from the United States on April 26.

Noriega's lawyers had sought his acquittal, arguing the charges against him hinged on dodgy testimony from ex-drug traffickers who were paid and given protection by US authorities.

The pock-marked general known as "Pineapple Face" was arrested by US troops that invaded Panama in December 1989.

The one-time strongman was a key asset for the US Central Intelligence Agency but fell out with Washington when he turned his strategically important country into a drugs hub.

Much of Noriega's trial testimony centered on his bank accounts and his ties to the now-defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which handled his financial affairs.

Asked about the source of millions in cash deposits at the bank, Noriega said they came from successful business ventures including duty-free sales at Panama airport and life insurance policies.

The elderly former military leader appeared frail at the outset of the trial, but later put up a combative defence, at times punching the air with his hands.

His wife Felicidad, who was not on trial, remained in Panama but his three daughters sat in the Paris courtroom, listening attentively and taking notes during the entire proceedings.

© 2010 AFP

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