Panama ex-dictator Noriega on trial in France

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Panama's ex-dictator Manuel Noriega on Monday fought charges of laundering drug money at a new trial in France where he faces another 10 years in jail after spending two decades in a US prison.

The 76-year-old general, who ruled Panama from 1981 to 1989, looked frail as he stood before judges and gave his name, his hair slicked back and wearing a dark suit.

His three daughters were seated nearby as three days of hearings started, the second time France has put Noriega on trial for laundering money from Colombian drug dealers.

A French court in 1999 sentenced Noriega in absentia to 10 years in prison, 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.

Noriega's lawyer Olivier Metzner challenged the extradition, arguing that French authorities had failed 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 Metzner. "This man has not known freedom for 20 years. It is high time that his rights were respected."

Fellow defence lawyer Yves Leberquier called conditions at La Sante prison in Paris where Noriega is being held as "unacceptable" and that he should be held in "dignified" surroundings.

Since his extradition to France, Noriega's lawyers have unsuccessfully fought to win his release from prison but judges have rejected the requests, citing a flight risk.

Noriega is due to face questioning on Tuesday, assisted by a Spanish interpreter, with closing arguments on Wednesday.

At previous court appearances, he invoked his immunity as a former head of state and his failing health to try to win his freedom and return home.

The aging ex-leader suffers from partial paralysis and high blood pressure.

"We are worried about his health," his daughter Sandra told reporters after the first full day of hearings.

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 funnelled in the late 1980s was allegedly used by his wife Felicidad and a shell company to buy three luxury apartments in Paris that have since been seized by the French state.

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.

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

"We are dealing here with drug trafficking. We are dealing here with a person who had a very special relationship with Medellin and who obtained spectacular amounts of money from the cartel," said lawyer Yves Baudelot, representing Panama, which is demanding 27 millions euros in reparations.

Panama has also asked France to extradite Noriega, who has been condemned in his homeland to 54 years in prison for his role in the disappearance and killings of political opponents from 1968 to 1989.

But Paris has said that extradition will not happen before the case against him in France has run its course.

A verdict is not expected for several months. The court could uphold the previous conviction and 10-year jail sentence.

During the 1980s, the one-time strongman turned his strategically important central American country into an international hub for narco-trafficking and money-laundering.

France awarded him the Legion of Honour, the nation's highest decoration, in 1987 for his efforts to boost relations but earlier this month, he was notified that he will likely be stripped of the order if convicted.

Once a prized CIA asset, Noriega fell out with Washington and in December 1989, US president George H. 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

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