Noriega Arrives In France To Face Charges

The U.S. has extradited former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to France, where he faces money laundering charges. Noriega was ousted as Panama's leader and put on trial following a 1989 U.S. military invasion. He was convicted of drug racketeering and related charges in 1992, and had been held in a federal prison in Florida.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The former dictator of Panama, Manuel Noriega, has traded his prison in the United States for one in France. He spent years in a federal prison outside Miami. Yesterday he was flown to Paris to face charges there. Reporter Eleanor Beardsley is covering this story from Paris.

Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: Some people are surprised to even hear Manuel Noriega's name after all these years. What are the accusations against him in France?

BEARDSLEY: Well, in France he's accused of money laundering to the tune of $3 million. He bought luxury apartments in Paris. And he was actually tried in absentia in 1999 here and sentenced to 10 years and a $15 million fine. So for the last couple years the French have been trying to get him here. They've asked that he be extradited and they've promised a new trial if he comes. And he's arrived.

INSKEEP: It's been a couple of decades since he was at the front of the news - the target of a U.S.-led operation to get him out of power in Panama. Remind us how he ended up in an American prison.

BEARDSLEY: Well, he was actually a U.S. ally. He worked closely with the CIA, was considered an asset. But then he fell in with the bad guys, then he became a drug leader. And actually in 1989 the first President Bush invaded Panama to depose him and he was brought to the U.S. and convicted of drug racketeering in 1992 and sentenced to prison. And he was apparently a model prisoner. So he was released - given an early release in 2007. But he actually stayed in prison in Miami to fight his extradition to France and Panama during that time.

INSKEEP: But now he goes to France.

BEARDSLEY: That's right. And actually, it's strange, because they showed footage of him sort of shuffling off the plane. And reporters were saying he got off last and no one even recognized him. That's because this is just a long-forgotten affair from really the other side of the world. And here it is back in everyone's face again. But people are having to be reminded of who this man actually is.

INSKEEP: Do you have any sense of why French authorities have decided to press ahead with the case given that?

BEARDSLEY: Well, they seem very bent on charging him with these charges in person. And this morning he is going to see a judge who will decide whether he is going to be put in detention before a trial. A trial would take place within the next two months.

His lawyers are going to use the Geneva Conventions. You know, those are the sort of international standards for the humane treatment of war victims. Now, he was designated a prisoner of war by a U.S. judge in 1992. So he got special privileges in U.S. prison. And his lawyers will say, you know, he was a leader of a country. He should not just be thrown in prison.

But actually, they're saying that he probably will be held in France's celebrity prison. That's called Le Sante. It's a prison in Paris where corrupt ministers serve their time. So he will probably end up waiting for his trial there, Steve.

INSKEEP: What distinguishes the celebrity prison from an ordinary prison?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you know, you have probably corrupt politicians and just not the usual riffraff from the street. These are high profile prisoners.

INSKEEP: Oh, so the treatment might be similar, but you just have a better class of cellmate?

BEARDSLEY: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Manual Noriega, when he was put on trial in the United States, said that there was a lot more to this story than the U.S. was letting on and said that U.S. officials were complicit in many of the things that he was accused of. Is he mounting any sort of defense like that as he prepares for trial in France?

BEARDSLEY: So far this morning his lawyers have not discussed the details they might get into. Right now it seems that they're going to plead that the man is old. He's already served his time. He's also wanted in Panama for crimes.

They're going to push for him to just be able to go home, where apparently old prisoners can serve their time in their house. And they're saying he just wants to play on his porch with his grandchildren. So we haven't heard the details of what may come up in this case. But right now his lawyers are saying, you know, the man has served time, he's very old, he's a prisoner of war, you know, let's let this go.

INSKEEP: Eleanor Beardsley is in Paris. Thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You know, when Noriega fled U.S. troops back in 1989, the U.S. military tried to blast him out of an embassy in Panama by playing loud music. And we have posted a link to a list of those songs on Twitter @MorningEdition or @NPRInskeep. They include this smash hit by Rick Astley.

(Soundbite of song, "Never Going to Give You Up")

Mr. RICK ASTLEY (Singer): (Singing) Never going to give you up, never going to let you down, never going to run around and desert you...

INSKEEP: Write us back if you can stand it. Let us know what songs would make you give up.

(Soundbite of song, "Never Going to Give You Up")

Mr. ASTLEY: (Singing) Never going to tell a lie and hurt you...

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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