Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega completed his 17-year prison sentence in the United States for drug trafficking on Sunday. But as VOA's Brian Wagner reports from Miami, Noriega remains in U.S. custody as his lawyers fight an extradition claim from France.

Former Panamanian general Manuel Noriega became eligible for release from a minimum-security prison in Miami, after serving 17 years on a drug and racketeering sentence. Noriega has spent the past 15 years in a private cell at the facility, where he has access to a television, telephone, and exercise equipment.

His attorney Frank Rubino says Noriega will likely remain there for months to come, pending the outcome of a legal battle over extradition.

"He is technically released out of the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, but is then in the custody of the United States Marshals," said Rubino. "It is basically nothing more than a paper transfer. His physical custody remains the same."

Rubino says his legal team is working on an appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to challenge the extradition request from France, where the 73-year-old faces money laundering charges. He says the claim will show Noriega has been declared a prisoner of war in the United States and, under the Geneva Conventions, must be returned home at the end of his detention.

Noriega's attorneys have filed similar motions in lower courts in Miami, which have been rejected. Two weeks ago, a judge issued a certificate of extraditability against Noriega, one of the first steps in the extradition process.

Officials at the U.S. State Department say Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice must ultimately approve the transfer, but they say that would not happen for several months, until Noriega's attorneys have been able to present their appeals.

U.S. officials say they have communicated several times with France about the extradition request, and say they are satisfied that France will respect Noriega's rights when he is transferred.

Panama's government has filed its own extradition request for Noriega, who has been convicted in absentia there for embezzlement, murder, and corruption.

A poll published Sunday in a leading Panama City newspaper showed that a majority of Panamanians back the French claim, saying Noriega is unlikely to face justice at home.