Image: Manuel Noriega
AP
Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, shown in a U.S. Marshall service photo in 1990, is fighting to return to Panama.
updated 1/7/2009 6:41:17 PM ET 2009-01-07T23:41:17

As the only prisoner of war held on U.S. soil, inmate No. 38699-079 gets annual visits from the Red Cross and can wear his military uniform and insignia when he goes to court.

Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega frequently sees his wife and children, who make the trip to his private bungalow at a federal prison near Miami from their home in Panama. The onetime CIA operative is a dedicated news junkie, reads voraciously about history and politics and is working on a memoir.

Whether the vanquished dictator's story ends in prison or freedom, at home or abroad, depends on how courts in three countries on two continents decide to punish him for his drug-running past.

Thought he was headed home
More than a year ago, Noriega completed his sentence for drug racketeering and money laundering and thought he was headed home. Instead, U.S. officials dropped a legal bomb: Noriega would be extradited to France to stand trial on more money laundering charges.

On Jan. 14, a federal appeals court will hear arguments on Noriega's claim that as a POW he should immediately be repatriated, 19 years after the U.S. invaded Panama to remove him from power.

"Gen. Noriega is not a complainer," said Frank Rubino, one of Noriega's attorneys. "As a soldier, he's been schooled in such a way that he was dealt this hand, and he will play this hand."

Three federal judges in Miami have rejected Noriega's theory. Still, Rubino said, the imprisoned strongman is unbowed.

"His mental state has remained firm, strong, strongwilled," Rubino said of his client, who gave his age as 73 last year in court, though the Federal Bureau of Prisons still lists him as 72. "He now has hope and faith that the appellate courts will triumph over politics and send him home."

Operation Just Cause
Operation Just Cause began Dec. 20, 1989, with more than 26,000 U.S. troops deployed to Panama in what was the largest military operation since the Vietnam War. Noriega had been Panama's de facto leader since 1983.

Less than a year in office, President George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion because Noriega had become increasingly belligerent toward the U.S., ignored democratic election results and essentially turned Panama into a way station and banker for Colombia's powerful Medellin cocaine cartel.

U.S. forces quickly overwhelmed Panama's defenses, with the whole operation taking less than a month.

Noriega took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City. U.S. troops blasted the building with loud rock music until the Vatican complained, and Noriega finally surrendered.

He was immediately flown to Miami to stand trial and has been in U.S. custody ever since.

Noriega, who declined repeated interview requests, has said he believes his ouster was rooted in his refusal to help the U.S. support the Contras attempting to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist government in the 1980s.

On the CIA payroll
It didn't come to light until well after the invasion that Noriega had long been on the CIA payroll as a key asset, including acting as a back channel to the communist government of Cuba's Fidel Castro. One Air Force colonel testified that Noriega was "the best source of information the United States had in Latin America."

Noriega was convicted of eight counts in April 1992 and got a 40-year prison sentence. Later that year, on the eve of his transfer to a maximum-security prison, Noriega's lawyers persuaded U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler to declare him a POW who should be accorded full protection under the Geneva Conventions. It was the first ruling of its kind in U.S. history, and set the stage for the court battle now stretching into 2009.

Hoeveler reduced Noriega's sentence to 30 years in 1999, and with time off for good behavior, the inmate was set for release Sept. 9, 2007. Then the French extradition request surfaced.

France wants to try Noriega on charges of laundering $25 million in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three posh Paris apartments.

Panama has its own extradition request pending with the U.S., and President Martin Torrijos has said his country will file a similar request with France if Noriega is sent there.

Noriega was convicted in absentia in Panama of murder, embezzlement and corruption and sentenced to 60 years in prison, though that could be served under house arrest.

To the U.S., the case is simple: The Geneva Conventions do not prevent a country from honoring its extradition treaty with another country. The State Department has received diplomatic assurances from France that it will continue to treat Noriega as a POW, even if it does not formally declare him such.

Secretary of state has final decision
The final decision on Noriega's extradition rests with the U.S. secretary of state. President George W. Bush's administration made it clear that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would sign the proper documents quickly if Noriega lost in the courts.

But with Bush's term nearly over, the decision on what happens to the man his father invaded a country to capture is out of the president's hands. The three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hearing arguments next week is unlikely to rule for several months, and additional appeals remain, up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Noriega's lawyers insist the only way he can stand trial in France is if he is first returned to Panama, then extradited. They note that the Geneva Conventions say a POW must be repatriated when hostilities have ended or the prisoner has completed a criminal sentence.

Rubino, Noriega's attorney, suggested Panama would prefer that the general never come back.

"We think candidly they are very fearful of his return for political reasons," Rubino said. "They believe he does have a power base there."

Noriega could not return to power through legitimate means, not anymore, University of Panama sociologist Raul Leis said. Noriega's main im"pact might be the secrets he could reveal about current political figures from his days working with the CIA, Leis said.

"His presence could create concern because of what he could say against former collaborators and opponents," Leis said in Spanish. "Even though there's a small sector that yearns for the Noriega era," he said, that's not how most of the country feels today.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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