Relishing the chance to defend himself in court, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega boasted Tuesday of his one-time international stature and decried the United States as the mastermind of a "conspiracy" that has kept him behind bars for two decades.
Speaking in a booming voice and gesticulating animatedly, the 76-year-old delivered an hour-long monologue that started with his rise from a "modest family" to the summits of power in 1983 and lingered on the details of his long, friendly relationship with the U.S. government — including the CIA. He also gave his take on why the relationship soured.
But when the judges pressed him with questions pertaining to the charges against him — that he laundered drug money in France in the late 1980s — Noriega clammed up, insisting he couldn't recall his financial doings at the time.
Noriega was deposed after a 1989 U.S. invasion and went on to spend two decades behind bars in Florida for drug trafficking. In April, he was extradited to France to face charges that he laundered profits from cocaine trafficking through French banks.
Those charges, he said, were nothing more than "an imaginary financial setup."
'I am a victim'
"I am a victim of the same conspiracy that the United States brought against me," said Noriega, who faces up to 10 years in prison and multimillion euro (dollar) fines in France if convicted.
Noriega countered the prosecution's assertion that the money that moved through French banks was kickbacks from a Colombian drug cartel, insisting the cash came from "personal and family businesses," including the duty-free store at the Panama City airport, as well as from the CIA.
Noriega had been considered a valued CIA asset for years before he joined forces with drug traffickers and was implicated in the death of a political opponent.
Given the stand, he cast himself as a major international player and described missions in which he interceded as mediator in conflicts with Cuba, Nicaragua and Iran.
He also painted himself as a foe of drug traffickers, explaining that after rising through the ranks to the head of Panamanian Armed Forces, "I set about fighting against drug trafficking with much zeal and was warmly praised by the United States, by Interpol."
Noriega said the United States turned against him when he refused to participate in a U.S. plan aimed at ousting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The leftist Sandinistas fought U.S.-backed Contra rebels in the 1980s.
His vigorous testimony contrasted with his feeble appearance at the start of the trial a day earlier, his shoulders trembling uncontrollably as he briefly addressed the three-judge panel.
Financial adviser blamed
Still, the wind left his sails when the presiding judge, Agnes Quantin, steered the questioning toward the murky financial transactions in the late '80s that saw millions of dollars transit through accounts belonging to the general and members of his family.
Noriega insisted his financial adviser was behind the movement of the funds. When asked about specific transactions, he repeatedly said he couldn't remember.
At one point, Noriega lawyer Yves Leberquier reminded the judges "we're talking about things that took place 25 years ago" and suggested it was normal that Noriega couldn't respond.
"I notice that he has a selective memory," Quantin said.
Noriega responded that he was simply lacking expertise in such matters. "I am a political military man, not a banker," he said.
France already convicted Noriega and his wife in absentia in 1999 for laundering several million dollars in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three luxurious Paris apartments on the Left Bank.
France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited. The three-day-long trial is to wrap up on Wednesday, with the verdict expected weeks or months later.