Panama's Noriega to hear verdict at French trial

7th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Panama's ex-dictator Manuel Noriega risks being sent to jail for 10 years after spending two decades in a US prison, when a French court on Wednesday hands down a verdict in his money-laundering trial.

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.

French prosecutors are seeking the maximum 10-year jail sentence for the 76-year-old general, who was extradited by the United States to France in April to face trial on money-laundering charges.

That is the same sentence handed down to Noriega when he was tried in absentia in 1999 on charges of laundering the equivalent of 2.3 million euros (2.8 million dollars) 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.

Noriega's lawyers are asking for his acquittal, saying the charges against him hinge on dodgy testimony from ex-drug traffickers who were paid and given protection by US authorities.

One of the lawyers, Yves Leberquier, last week urged the court to "go beyond the image that the United States presents of Noriega" as a "dictator and cocaine-trafficker."

He said a 10-tear term would amount to a life sentence for the general, who suffers from partial paralysis and high blood pressure, meaning "the death in jail of an ill man of 76."

Panama has asked France to hand him over to face trial in his home country for human rights violations, but Paris has said that will not happen before the case in France has run its course.

Noriega, who ruled Panama from 1983 to 1989, has already spent 20 years in a Miami prison for drug trafficking and money laundering and for years fought against being extradited to France.

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.

At his Paris trial, Noriega testified that Washington turned against him in the 1980s when he refused to allow Panama to become a staging ground for operations against leftists across Central America.

Much of Noriega's trial testimony centred 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 is 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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