Panama's Noriega denies 'imaginary' charges at French trial

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, as he took the stand in a French court.

The 76-year-old general spoke in a loud and confident voice 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 on the second day of his trial.

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.

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

Once a close US ally, Noriega testified that Washington turned against him when he refused to allow Panama to be turned into a staging ground for operations directed against leftists across Central America.

"That's when the propaganda started against me after so many years of cooperation with the United States," he told the court as his three daughters sat nearby, listening attentively.

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 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 pock-marked general known as "Pineapple Face" was arrested by US troops sent by US president George H.W. Bush in December 1989 to invade Panama and bring him to trial in the United States.

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.

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.

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.

Much of the hearing on Tuesday was devoted to questions about Noriega's foreign bank accounts and his ties to the now-defunct BCCI bank, that allegedly handled his financial affairs.

Asked about the source of millions in cash deposits at the bank, Noriega explained that the funds came from his successful business interests including duty-free sales at Panama airport and life insurance policies.

The one-time strongman, widely considered to have turned his strategically important country into a hub for narco-trafficking, said he had instructed his banker to find a safe haven for his personal wealth and avoid a US assets freeze.

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 but a verdict is not expected for several months.

© 2010 AFP

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