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Panama's Noriega Challenges France Extradition


Lawyers for former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega have asked a U.S. judge to block his possible extradition to France to face money-laundering charges. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports that Noreiga is seeking to return to Panama when he is paroled from a U.S. prison in September.

The legal troubles of Panama's former military leader Manuel Noriega are likely to continue when he is released from a U.S. prison on September 9, after serving 17 years of a drug sentence. The governments in both France and Panama are seeking the custody of Noriega to answer for crimes he allegedly committed while he was in power.

Noriega was convicted in 1992 in the United States for protecting Colombian drug cartels shipping drugs to the United States, and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was convicted in France in 1999 for laundering millions of dollars in alleged drug money. He faces a 10-year jail term there.

In Panama, Noriega is accused of taking part in the killings of at least two political opponents.

Noriega's attorneys filed motions in a Miami court Monday asking that he be returned to Panama to fight the charges against him.

Attorney John May says U.S. courts for years have classified Noriega as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions, because he surrendered during a U.S. military invasion launched in 1989.

"The French request would contravene the terms of the Geneva Conventions which require that General Noriega be repatriated to Panama," he said.

U.S. attorneys representing the French government filed the extradition request in Miami. Last week, a U.S. State Department spokesman said the decision will belong to a Miami judge whether to order Noriega's extradition to France or to Panama. The judge is expected to hold an initial hearing on Thursday.

Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney who helped prosecute Noriega, says he feels the French request will prevail because it has satisfied U.S. legal requirements.

"He was tried [in France], he was convicted, and now it is time to pay the piper. I think he will have to go to France, serve his sentence, and eventually I think he will make his way back to Panama," he said.

Noriega's attorneys say they believe that officials want to send the former leader to France, in an effort to spare Panama's President Martin Torrijos from any political embarrassment. Panama's government says it has filed several extradition requests in Washington, and says it wants to hold Noriega responsible for alleged crimes during his years in power.

Former prosecutor Lewis says officials at the time of Noriega's 1992 conviction made no provisions for possible future cases against him. He added he is not surprised by the current battle over custody of the former military leader.

"This of course was the first time that a foreign leader had been indicted, arrested, brought to the United States, prosecuted and convicted. For better or worse, this is the kind of case that seems to make [legal precedent] on a regular basis," he said.

Lewis says the Noriega case has been a key test of the U.S. justice system over the years, and he says he expects it will continue to do so in coming weeks.

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