Ex-Panama leader Noriega faces charges in France

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Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega on Tuesday appeared before a French magistrate to face charges of laundering drug money after he was extradited from the United States.

The 76-year-old general, who ruled Panama from 1981 to 1989, flew into Paris early Tuesday on board an Air France flight from Miami and was taken directly to the Paris courthouse to hear the charges against him.

Noriega's lawyer said his client looked "very weak" and was under medical treatment as he began proceedings expected to culminate in a trial in the coming months.

The former strongman left a Miami prison on Monday where he served 17 years after being deposed in 1989 when former US president George Bush sent troops into Panama to arrest him.

Noriega was convicted in absentia in France more than a decade ago for laundering drug profits and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Under French law, defendants tried in absentia are entitled to a new trial.

Noriega's defence lawyers contest France's jurisdiction to try the case and argue that the elderly ex-leader must be allowed to return to his home country, where he has also been convicted in absentia.

"We are going to do everything to show that he does not belong in France, that this man must be allowed to return home," said lawyer Olivier Metzner.

Prosecutors accuse Noriega of transferring the equivalent of 2.3 million euros into French bank accounts from Colombian drug dealers. The ex-leader was to appear in court later Tuesday for a remand hearing.

Once a prized CIA asset, Noriega fell out with Washington in the late 1980s amid reports that he had become deeply involved in drug trafficking and suspicions that he was collaborating with Cuba.

In December 1989, Bush ordered Noriega's capture to face trial in the United States, sending troops into Panama in Operation Just Cause.

After Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican embassy, US troops surrounded the building, blasting heavy metal music to wear down his resistance.

A 10-day standoff ended on January 2 1990 when Noriega walked out of the embassy and surrendered to US forces who flew him to Miami, Florida.

Convicted on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison. That sentence was reduced to 17 years for good behaviour.

But the ex-dictator remained in US custody while fighting extradition to France. In March, the US Supreme Court threw out a final bid by Noriega to avoid being sent to France.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed an extradition order in Washington on Monday, ending years of legal wrangling over Noriega's fate.

Noriega's lawyers contend that their client enjoys immunity as an ex-head of state and that the statute of limitations had run out.

During the French trial in 1999, a judge had convicted Noriega in absentia of laundering several million euros from Colombian drug traffickers through the scandal-tainted Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

Investigators had traced 20 million euros in BCCI accounts belonging to Noriega. His wife Felicidad -- also sentenced to 10 years in absentia -- had allegedly used some of the drug money to buy three luxury apartments in Paris.

Noriega's age was shown as being 74 in US documents, but his French lawyers said Tuesday he was 76.

© 2010 AFP

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