Friday, July 27, 2007

MIAMI — Aged and paunchy former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega appeared in a South Florida federal court yesterday to contest a request to extradite him to France, where he faces money-laundering charges.

Sporting his general’s uniform under a black jacket, Noriega, 72, listened to the hearing through headphones that transmitted a simultaneous translation of the hearing and answered Judge William Turnoff’s questions in clearly audible Spanish.

Judge Turnoff ordered another hearing on France’s request for the extradition of Noriega on Aug. 28, granting his attorneys’ request for more time to prepare for a separate hearing on the fate of the former dictator.

The judge denied Noriega’s bond request despite assertions by his attorney, Frank Rubino, that he has been “a resident of South Florida for 18 years” and a model employee of the federal government during his incarceration, a notion that drew laughs from the courtroom.

In the meantime, Noriega’s co-counsels, Mr. Rubino and Jon May, will petition U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler to allow their client to return to Panama because he is being held in the United States as a prisoner of war.

Judge Hoeveler, who presided over the original trial that determined Noriega was a prisoner of war, has scheduled an Aug. 10 hearing on the French extradition request.

Under the laws of the Geneva Conventions, a prisoner of war can be repatriated only to the prisoner’s country of origin. Federal prosecutors argued yesterday that Judge Hoeveler should first allow Judge Turnoff to determine whether Noriega should be extradited to France before ruling whether the attempted extradition is lawful.

France has petitioned for Noriega to face charges that he spent about $3.15 million on high-priced real estate in Paris, a charge the ex-dictator’s attorneys say was trumped up by U.S., French and Panamanian officials to prevent their client from being returned to Panama. France tried Noriega in absentia in 1999 on money-laundering charges.

Noriega’s sentence in the United States officially ends on Sept. 9. His original 30-year sentence to a federal prison just outside Miami was cut in half because of good behavior.

“The French government has been put up to this by the U.S. and Panamanian governments,” Mr. Rubino told reporters earlier this week.

Mr. Rubino accused Panama of fearing the return of Noriega to the Central American country despite spending the past 18 years “beating on their chests like a wild gorilla” saying he must face charges at home of murder, kidnapping and extortion.

Noriega was captured by U.S. forces during the 1989 military invasion ordered by President Bush, citing the general’s links to drug trafficking.

It was discovered later that Noriega had cooperated with the CIA for many years, acting as a point man on Latin American issues for the United States and serving as a mediator of sorts between Washington and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

In 1992, Noriega was convicted of colluding with the Colombian Medellin drug cartel by allowing shipments of cocaine to transit through Panama on their way to the United States.

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