U.S. Extradites Noriega To France

The U.S. has signed off on the extradition of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to France, clearing the way for him to stand trial there on money laundering charges. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Greg Allen.

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After two decades in U.S. custody, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega has been extradited to France. It was in 1989 that U.S. military forces invaded Panama, and within a few weeks, captured Noriega. He was brought to the U.S., stood trial in Miami on drug trafficking charges and served 17 years in prison. After he completed that sentence a few years ago, he stayed in U.S. custody while he fought his extradition to France.

This afternoon, Noriega was put on board in Air France jet bound for Paris.

NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami. And Greg, explain what led up to this extradition today.

GREG ALLEN: Well, it began when his sentence was completed in 2007. He actually serves 17 years, you say, getting some time off for good behavior. But he was not released from U.S. custody. Immediately, France moves for his extradition and the U.S. supported that request and started moving toward that direction.

Noriega's lawyers, though, at the same time fought that extradition, all the time trying to stop his movement to France.

BLOCK: And what was their argument in fighting the extradition?

ALLEN: Well, Noriega all along wanted to return to Panama, his home country. And of course, he's wanted there also on human rights violations. So his lawyers said that he should return to his home country. As you may know, he was held here in Miami as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention. And his lawyers said that under the Geneva Convention, it requires that prisoners of war be returned to their home countries at the end of hostilities and when their sentences are complete, say, if that he should be sent back to Panama.

The U.S. never bought that argument. Noriega's lawyers took it to an appeals court, they upheld the U.S. argument, and then the U.S. Supreme Court, just last month, refused to rehear the request so that cleared the way for the extradition and that's where we are today.

BLOCK: And Greg, why today for the extradition? Do we know?

ALLEN: No, we don't, Melissa. I mean, it's one of these things that comes along. We knew it was going to happen in a matter of days, weeks. But it's still happened in a way to catch many of us by surprise. Even Noriega's lawyers said that they had no idea it was coming and they were a little bit taken aback at the swiftness by which it happened. But we understand that today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed the extradition documents which cleared the way for his release. And very shortly, afterward, federal marshals took Noriega from his cell, led him shackled to board an Air France jet, which was bound for France. And he'll be going tomorrow, we understand, before a French judge who will then determine what happens next, where he's going to be held, under what conditions.

BLOCK: And so that's the end of this chapter of Manuel Noriega's long relationship with the United States.

ALLEN: Yes. And it's kind of an anticlimactic end to what's been a very long and tumultuous relationship. We recall that he started out here as a young man, as a military man being trained at some U.S. military facilities here, then, of course, his rise in Panama as a - becoming general. He was a - served as a CIA informant for quite some time. And then, of course, the drama that surrounded his - the invasion of Panama on 1989, his - there's a manhunt for him then he was - had a standoff at the Vatican embassy. He recalled a loud music that was played, the complaints. He's finally - and finally, his capture by U.S. authorities. They brought him back to Miami where he stood trial on drug trafficking charges. And he got a sentence of 30 years, he only served 17 years of the sentence, though, getting some time off for good behavior.

BLOCK: Okay, Greg. Thank you very much.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Greg Allen in Miami with news that the former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was extradited today to stand trial in France.

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