A panel of federal appeals judges questioned Wednesday whether former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega has any legal right to challenge his proposed extradition to France to face money-laundering charges.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges cast doubt at a hearing on claims by Noriega's lawyers that the Geneva Conventions treaties regarding prisoners of war require Noriega be returned to Panama because his sentence for drug racketeering ended in September 2007.
U.S. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes repeatedly asked Noriega attorney Jonathan May whether Congress eliminated the legal underpinnings of Noriega's argument when it passed the 2006 Military Commissions Act. The law created judicial procedures for enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but also could be applied to POWs and anyone else, the judges said.
"Do you disagree with the plain meaning of that language, or what?" Carnes said. "You're using the Geneva Conventions as a source of your client's right ... (the law) says you can't."
May said that was an incorrect interpretation of what Congress sought to do. He insisted the law was meant to apply solely to court proceedings, not an executive branch matter such as extradition.
"I know what is troubling this court. Congress was talking about something far more limited in scope," May said.
Noriega has been in U.S. custody since his capture shortly after U.S. troops invaded Panama in late 1989 to oust him from power. Once a valued CIA asset in Latin America, Noriega in the late 1980s became increasingly belligerent to the U.S. and transformed his country into a transfer point and banker for Colombia's notorious Medellin cocaine cartel.
Noriega, convicted in 1992 in the U.S. drug case, was declared a POW later that year by U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler. But Hoeveler and two other Miami federal judges have rejected Noriega's attempt to block the French extradition request, leading to Noriega's appeal.
Faces up to 10 years if convicted
The section of the law in question at the hearing prohibits detainees from using the Geneva Conventions or other treaties to establish rights in any U.S. court. The U.S. Supreme Court left that section intact earlier this year when it struck down another portion that had prevented detainees from challenging their indefinite detention at Guantanamo in federal courts.
May said that because extradition is a not a judicial function but one of the executive branch of government — the secretary of state makes final transfer decisions — the law should not prevent Noriega from invoking the Geneva Conventions to argue against extradition to France.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Cronin argued that even without the Military Commissions Act, Noriega is eligible for extradition because France has also signed the Geneva Conventions treaties and has pledged to continue treating him as a POW. Noriega was convicted in absentia of the money-laundering charges but French officials have promised to conduct a second trial, Cronin said.
"There is nothing in the Geneva Conventions that should prohibit this transfer," Cronin said.
Noriega, who is in his early 70s, faces up to 10 years if convicted a second time of the French charges. He served about 17 years in a Miami federal prison for his drug convictions, but remains in custody pending the outcome of his appeals.
The appeals court did not issue an immediate ruling, which typically takes several months. May said it's likely Noriega will seek U.S. Supreme Court review if he loses. Panama also has sought to extradite Noriega to face justice in his home country.