Panama ex-dictator Noriega faces French court
Panama's ex-dictator Manuel Noriega takes the stand Tuesday to defend himself against charges of laundering Colombian drug money on the second day of his trial in France where he faces 10 years in jail.
The 76-year-old general looked frail as he stood, hunched over, before judges and gave his name at the opening on Monday of the trial in Paris, two months after he was extradited from the United States.
Noriega, who ruled Panama from 1983 to 1989, spent 20 years in a Miami cell for drug trafficking and money laundering and now faces the prospect of another decade in a French prison if convicted.
The trial opened with lawyers contesting the extradition after French authorities refused to recognise the prisoner of war status granted to Noriega in the United States.
"The extradition must be considered invalid even if that means deporting him to Panama," said lawyer Olivier Metzner. "This man has not known freedom for 20 years. It is high time that his rights were respected."
The status spelled out under the Geneva Conventions recognises the right of prisoners to wear their uniform, be held in humane conditions and have access to health care.
Co-defence lawyer Yves Leberquier called conditions at La Sante prison in Paris where Noriega is being held as "unacceptable", saying he was confined to a tiny cell and that he should be held in "dignified" surroundings.
The pock-marked general known as "Pineapple Face" is accused of laundering the equivalent of 2.3 million euros (2.8 million dollars) from the Medellin cocaine cartel through the Bank of Credit and Commerce International which collapsed in 1991 after widespread fraud was found.
The money funneled in the late 1980s was allegedly used by his wife Felicidad and a shell company to buy three luxury apartments in Paris.
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.
A French court in 1999 sentenced Noriega in absentia to 10 years in prison and a fine of some 13.5 million euros, but for years he fought extradition from his prison cell in Miami.
That legal battle ended however when the US Supreme Court turned down his appeal and he was extradited to France on April 26.
Felicidad Noriega, who was also convicted in the 1999 case, remained in Panama but the ex-leader's three daughters turned up in court on Monday, seated not far from their father who was assisted by a Spanish interpreter.
On Tuesday, Noriega was expected to invoke his right to immunity as a former head of state and failing health to try to win his freedom and return home. The aging ex-leader suffers from partial paralysis and high blood pressure.
The trial wraps up on Wednesday and a verdict is not expected for several months.
During the 1980s, the one-time strongman turned his strategically important Central American country into an international hub for narco-trafficking.
Once a prized CIA asset, Noriega fell out with Washington and in December 1989, US president George H.W. Bush sent troops to invade Panama to capture Noriega to face trial in the United States.
Convicted on charges of drug-trafficking and money-laundering, Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison in a Florida court. That sentence was reduced to 17 years for good behaviour.
© 2010 AFP