Panama's former dictator Manuel Noriega asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to block his extradition to France to face money-laundering charges, contending that as a prisoner of war he must be allowed to return home.
Noriega has lost four previous attempts to persuade federal courts to stop the French extradition, making this his last legal stand. The Supreme Court is in recess and likely will consider whether to take Noriega's case in the fall.
The former general's argument focuses on the Geneva Conventions treaties regarding repatriation of POWs after wars end. Noriega attorneys Jonathan May and Frank Rubino contend that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and lower courts were wrong in ruling that Noriega could not use the treaties to block extradition to a third country such as France.
The appeals court's decision "leads to a wholesale repudiation of the Geneva Convention itself," the attorneys wrote in their brief. "Its interpretation ... undermines protections that apply not only to prisoners of war in the United States but to our own men and women who find themselves prisoners of war of other nations."
Granted POW status in 1992
Noriega was granted POW status by U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler in 1992, shortly after his conviction on drug trafficking and related charges. Noriega was ousted as Panama's leader and brought to Miami to stand trial following a 1989 U.S. invasion that drove him from power.
That drug sentence ended on Sept. 9, 2007. A few weeks before, the U.S. filed papers backing France's request that Noriega be extradited to stand trial on drug money-laundering charges there. Noriega was convicted in absentia of laundering some $3 million in drug proceeds, but France has agreed to give him a new trial.
While the legal battle rages, Noriega remains at the same Miami prison where he served his drug sentence. U.S. officials have promised not to move him while his appeals continue.
The crux of the 11th Circuit's decision was that changes made by Congress in 2006 to the Military Commissions Act meant that no person — enemy combatant, U.S. citizen or otherwise — could invoke the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights before federal courts. That meant Noriega couldn't rely on the treaties to win his battle against extradition.
May and Rubino said in their brief that the appeals court's logic conflicts with previous Supreme Court decisions on the POW treaties. They contend that only war criminals can be extradited to another country after hostilities end and any criminal sentence in the U.S. is completed.
U.S. not honoring Panama's request
The U.S. Justice Department has consistently maintained that the president has full authority to extradite Noriega to France and that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to his situation. The final decision on extradition rests with the secretary of state.
Panama has also filed an extradition request, but the U.S. has chosen not to honor it.
Noriega was convicted in absentia in Panama of embezzlement, corruption and murdering political opponents and sentenced to 60 years. But under Panamanian law, he could wind up serving only a portion of that sentence or get house arrest.
His age is disputed though he's listed as 73 by U.S. officials.