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Noriega Dismisses Money Laundering Charges as 'Imaginary'

A court sketch made at the Paris courthouse shows former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (R) and one of Noriega's lawyer Yves Leberquier (L), during his trial, 28 Jun 2010

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega - on trial in Paris - says French money-laundering charges against him stem from an "imaginary" banking scheme concocted by the United States.

Noriega was testifying Tuesday about charges he laundered millions of dollars in illicit cocaine profits in the 1980s through two French banks. He is accused of using the money to buy luxury apartments in Paris.

Noriega described the accusations as part of a "conspiracy" brought against him by the United States. He said the money came from his legitimate businesses and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The 76-year-old ex-general, who spent 20 years in U.S. custody for drug trafficking, could return to prison for 10 more years if convicted on the French charges. He ruled Panama from 1981 to 1989, and was arrested a year later during a U.S. invasion.

Taking the stand, Noriega denied receiving money from drug traffickers, saying he fought the drug trade while in power and received praise for his efforts from the U.S. and Interpol.

Once a close U.S. ally, Noriega testified that Washington turned against him when he refused to participate in a U.S. plan against leftists in Central America.

France convicted both Noriega and his wife in absentia on money laundering charges in 1999, but now that he is in custody, he is entitled to a new trial under French law.

Noriega's lawyers opened the proceedings Monday arguing their client's extradition from the United States should be annulled because France did not allow the ex-general to wear his military uniform and medals while awaiting trial. They also claim his Paris jail conditions are unacceptable.

In the 1990s, Noriega's attorneys argued that he was a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions, and therefore should be allowed to return home to Panama. A U.S. federal appeals court rejected that argument and the U.S. Supreme Court later declined to review his case.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.