Manuel Noriega’s U.S. drug racketeering sentence ended Sunday, but the former Panamanian dictator remains in the same prison where he has been held for 15 years, awaiting the outcome of a legal fight over possible extradition to France.
Noriega, 73, hopes to return to Panama, where his lawyers say he wants to live quietly and has no interest in politics.
However, the U.S and French governments want him sent to Paris to face trial for allegedly laundering drug proceeds.
On Friday, Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler rejected a second attempt by Noriega’s lawyers to block the extradition. They claim Noriega is entitled to return to Panama because Hoeveler has declared him a prisoner of war.
Noriega’s attorneys filed notice of an appeal with the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
‘A slow and orderly process’
The final decision on France’s extradition request rests with the State Department, which has said it won’t issue an order until Noriega’s appeals are exhausted.
That process could take several weeks. “It’s going to be a slow and orderly process,” said Noriega attorney Frank Rubino.
Officials left no doubt that they expect Noriega eventually to be taken to France.
“I would suspect that once the legal barriers are removed and the documentation is presented to us that you’ll see some pretty quick action on the department’s part,” deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Friday.
Noriega was convicted in 1992 on drug racketeering charges, accused of essentially allowing Panama to become a transit point and money laundering center for Colombian drug cartels.
Hoeveler declared him a POW shortly after that because Noriega had been captured by U.S. forces during a 1989 invasion of Panama intended to remove him from power.
Since then, Noriega — prisoner No. 38699-079 — has served his time in an apartmentlike cell with exercise equipment, television and telephone. He’s been allowed to wear his military uniform and insignia, with the International Committee of the Red Cross monitoring his treatment as required for POWs under the Geneva Conventions.
France has agreed to continue treating Noriega as a POW, according to U.S. officials. Noriega’s lawyers have cast doubt on those assertions, pointing to statements by French officials that Noriega was viewed as a “common criminal.”
Noriega already has been convicted in France of laundering some $3 million in drug proceeds through French banks and using some of the money to buy luxury apartments in Paris. The French say Noriega will get a new trial and faces a potential 10-year prison sentence if convicted.
Noriega also been convicted in absentia in Panama on charges of murdering political opponents, embezzlement and corruption, and been sentenced to 60 years. Because of his age, Panamanian law could allow him to serve that sentence under house arrest.
Panama had an extradition request pending with the U.S. but did not pursue it, according to U.S. court documents. Panamanian officials have said they will file a new request with France.
Noriega was originally sentenced to 40 years in U.S. prison, but Hoeveler reduced that to 30 years. Noriega subsequently earned time off for good behavior, resulting in what amounted to a total 17-year prison term counting time behind bars before and during his trial.