A U.S. judge Monday approved the extradition of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to face money laundering charges in France. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports that Noriega's lawyers have vowed to challenge the ruling and press for Noriega to be returned home to Panama when he is released from a U.S. prison next month.
The federal judge in Miami agreed to the French request and said he will issue a formal order of extradition for former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega on Wednesday. The ruling from Magistrate William Turnoff is expected to be forwarded to the U.S. State Department, which must give final approval to the extradition.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said officials will respond to the extradition request when it is processed later this week. "The administration has been supportive of this request from the government of France for extradition, so if in fact that is the decision the judge has rendered, I would not expect that this building or any other part of the executive branch would oppose it," he said.
A French court already has issued a 10-year prison term against Noriega on charges of using more than three million dollars in alleged drug money to buy luxurious apartments in Paris. French officials say the 73-year-old will receive a new trial if extradited.
Noriega is set to be released from a U.S. prison on September 9th, after serving 17 years of a drug and racketeering sentence.
An attorney for Noriega, John May, rejected the latest court decision and said he will likely appeal. His lawyers have argued that, under the Geneva Conventions, Noriega should be returned home because he was declared a prisoner of war after his seizure by U.S. troops during an invasion of the Central American nation in 1990.
In his ruling Tuesday, the judge rejected the claims and backed a separate court's ruling last week, which said the Geneva Conventions do not protect individuals from prosecution in other countries.
Noriega's attorneys have criticized Panama's government for failing to pursue its claim to extradite the 73-year-old former leader to face charges of corruption, embezzlement and murder.
Panamanian lawmaker Mayra Zúñiga, who was in Miami for the latest ruling, said she was disappointed that Noriega will not be sent home for trial. She says Panama's government is partly to blame for allowing the French extradition claim to prevail. "Zúñiga said the government is praying that Noriega will be taken to France, because his return could embarrass officials as the prepare for ruling party elections and general elections next May," she said.
Panamanian officials have said they filed several extradition claims in the United States to make Noriega face a criminal trial at home.