Panama's Noriega denies drug ties in French court

29th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Panama's ex-dictator Manuel Noriega on Tuesday dismissed charges of laundering drug money as an "imaginary banking scheme" concocted by the United States, on the second day of his trial in France.

The 76-year-old general spoke in a loud and confident voice as he took the stand in the Paris courtroom, rejecting charges that could land him in jail for another 10 years after spending two decades in a US prison.

"I say with much humility and respect that this is an imaginary banking scheme," Noriega told the court in Spanish through his interpreter.

"I will have the opportunity to produce documents that show that I was a victim of a conspiracy mounted by the United States against me," he said.

Defence lawyers argued that the charges of laundering drug money in French banks hinge on dodgy testimony from ex-drug traffickers who were paid and given protection by US authorities.

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.

Presenting himself as a "professional soldier," the ex-leader strongly denied dealings with Colombian drug cartels and said that on the contrary, he had fought narco-traffickers while in power in Panama in the 1980s.

"I energetically fought against the drug trade and for this I received praise from the United States, Interpol and many other countries," he said, wearing a dark suit and white shirt.

Waving his hands at times to underscore his arguments, Noriega recounted that as military commander in the 1980s, he had ordered a raid against a cocaine laboratory and waged other drug-fighting campaigns.

"Based on these actions, I could not be friends with these gangs," he said, referring to the Colombian drug cartels.

The ex-leader was extradited to France on April 26 to answer charges of laundering the equivalent of 2.3 million euros (2.8 million dollars) from the Medellin cocaine cartel through French banks in the late 1980s.

The pock-marked general known as "Pineapple Face" was arrested by US troops sent by Washington to Panama in 1989 to bring him to trial in the United States.

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.

The trial opened on Monday with lawyers contesting the extradition after French authorities refused to recognise the prisoner of war status granted to Noriega in the United States.

Felicidad Noriega, who was also convicted in the 1999 case, remained in Panama but the ex-leader's three daughters were in court, listening attentively from their seats not far from their father.

French prosecutors say that drug money funneled in the late 1980s was allegedly used by Noriega's wife and a shell company to buy three luxury apartments in Paris.

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.

The trial wraps up on Wednesday and a verdict is not expected for several months.

© 2010 AFP

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