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Noriega Lawyers Continue Fight Against Extradition


Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega remains in U.S. custody after his parole date, as his lawyers fight an extradition request from France. The 73-year-old Noriega was scheduled to be released Sunday when his drug and rackteering sentence ended.

A federal judge (William Hoeveler) in Miami ruled Friday that Noriega can be extradited to France to face money-laundering charges. The judge also lifted a temporary stay of extradition, rejecting defense arguments that France would not grant Noriega the protections of prisoner-of-war status. Noriega's attorneys say they will appeal.

VOA's Brian Wagner looks at Panama's troubled past under Noriega.

Former General Manuel Noriega ruled Panama for more than 16 years despite never winning an election. Once an ally of the United States, Noriega sparked condemnation when his government was blamed for killing political opponents, rigging elections and trafficking Colombian cocaine into the United States. After months of tensions, U.S. military forces invaded Panama in late 1989 and seized Noriega.

Former U.S. attorney Guy Lewis helped convict Noriega in 1992 for drug and racketeering charges. He says the case was historic. "This is the first time -- and the last time -- that a leader of a country has ever been forcibly removed, in this case by the [Army's] 82nd Airborne Division, and brought to the United States to stand trial."

Lewis says that during the trial Noriega felt that the charges against him were politically motivated and asked courts to declare him a prisoner of war. Lewis says what investigators found was a vast drug network linked to Panama.

"We always felt that this was a drug case. Clearly it had political ramifications, but we were trying to prove this guy smuggled dope, facilitated the smuggling of dope through his country, protected it, laundered the money that came back and that is what his role was."

Noriega's lawyers have filed court appeals claiming that his P.O.W. status blocks any extradition to France, where he faces money laundering charges. U.S. courts have rejected the appeals. Panama also has asked for Noriega's extradition to face charges of embezzlement, corruption and murder.

But many Panamanians support the French extradition claim. Luis Botello, a former Panamanian journalist who lives in Washington, D.C., says few people believe the 73-year-old former leader would face justice at home. "Even though many Panamanians would like to see him be punished in Panama, there is little confidence in the government. Many people want justice to be served, and if that can only happen abroad, then Noriega should go to France."

Botello says there is frustration that many of Noriega's former allies remain in power, and, he says, there has been no real effort to prosecute others accused of crimes during Noriega's rule. Botello says the recent extradition debate revives difficult memories about Noriega's dictatorship. "The fact that Noriega's possible return has stirred up so many strong emotions some 17 years later, shows that Panama is not ready to have him here yet, even if he went to prison."

Botello says Panama's government still needs to rebuild the public's confidence, which was damaged during the dictatorship. He says that may be easier without the former general.

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