Wednesday, April 28, 2010

PARIS | Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega faced money laundering charges in a French courtroom Tuesday after being extradited from the United States, opening up a whole new legal battle for the strongman who spent two decades behind bars in Florida for drug trafficking.

French authorities claim Noriega, who was ousted in a U.S. invasion in 1989, had laundered some $7 million in drug profits by purchasing luxury apartments with his wife in Paris. Noriega was convicted in absentia, but France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited.

The 72-year-old Noriega arrived Tuesday morning on a direct flight from Miami and was served with an international arrest warrant. He could face another 10 years in prison if convicted in France.

Noriega’s French lawyers are seeking his immediate release, saying his detention and transfer are unlawful. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed a surrender warrant for Noriega after a federal judge in Miami lifted a stay blocking his extradition last month.

Noriega appeared before prosecutors behind closed doors at the main Paris courthouse Tuesday and they read him the warrant, the first step before any other judicial action can be taken.

Later Tuesday, he was to appear before a judge who will decide whether to keep him behind bars or release him under judicial supervision pending further action.

If Noriega is released, even to house arrest or under other strict legal controls, that would be a major victory after a generation behind bars. It also could be an awkward situation for France, where a string of former dictators from Haiti to West Africa have settled in the past, sometimes in luxurious homes purchased with money of dubious origin.

Yves Leberquier, Noriega’s French lawyer, said the former dictator is partially paralyzed since suffering from a mild stroke four years ago.

“The man appears to be very weak,” said Olivier Metzner, another of his French lawyers.

Mr. Leberquier argued that it was illegal to try a former head of state who should have immunity from prosecution.

Other legal objections are that Noriega is considered a prisoner of war, a status Mr. Leberquier said French jails aren’t ready to accommodate, and that the charges against him are no longer valid because the acts he is accused of happened too long ago.

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