In Miami, a federal judge ruled Friday that former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega can be extradited to France to serve time there on money laundering charges.
Noriega is scheduled to be released from federal prison in Miami on Sept. 9, after serving 17 years on drug trafficking and racketeering charges.
The money laundering charges relate to drug trafficking in the 1980s. French authorities say some of that money was used to buy three apartments in Paris. Noriega was convicted in absentia in 1990, though the French extradition request says the former dictator is entitled to a new trial after he's on French soil.
Panama also requested Noriega's extradition. He was convicted there in absentia for murder and human rights violations — more serious charges that potentially carry 20-year sentences.
Justice department officials won't go into details about why they favor sending Noriega to France rather than Panama. They only say that each request is evaluated separately, and the Office of International Affairs determined that the French application was valid.
Noriega's lawyers went to court to try to block the extradition, saying that under the Geneva Conventions, the former dictator should be repatriated to his home country.
Federal Judge William Hoeveler ruled Friday that the Geneva Conventions should not prevent Noriega's extradition to another country.
"This court never intended for the proclamation of Defendant as a POW to shield him from all future prosecutions for serious crimes he is alleged to have committed," Judge Hoeveler says in his order.
Anthony Arend, an expert on extradition law at Georgetown University, says Hoeveler's ruling takes a reasonable approach toward the Geneva Conventions.
" Because France is a party to the Geneva Conventions relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, we can certainly transfer him to France, and as long as we have every indication France will abide by its obligations under the Geneva Conventions, that would be perfectly legal," Arend says.
Judge Hoeveler's Miami courtroom is the same place where Noriega was convicted 15 years ago. The judge was the same. Many of the court personnel and attorneys were the same. For many involved in the case during the past few weeks, there was a sense of déjà vu in the courtroom.
Also there was Manuel Noriega, now 72 years old, moving a little slower but wearing his military uniform and addressing the court in Spanish.
While Hoeveler has been considering Noriega's status, Panama has been sending mixed messages. Noriega's lawyers say they believe the Panamanian government entered into a secret deal with the United States and France to keep the former dictator from returning home.
Panamanian president Martin Torrijos and other officials have repeatedly denied making any such deal, steadfastly maintaining that the government wants Noriega back.
Last week in Panama, plans apparently were already under way for Noriega's return. Supporters began clearing weeds, cleaning and repainting the general's old mansion. The house was confiscated by the Panamanian government after the 1989 U.S. invasion. Noriega's lawyer in Panama said he was filing a motion to have the house returned to the former dictator.
But Miguel Antonio Bernal, an activist and professor at the University of Panama, says many within the power structure there are worried that Noriega's return would provoke a political backlash against the Torrijos government.
"Certainly, because a lot of people, we are going to take to the streets to request the government to put Noriega in jail," Bernal says. "And the government — because they were, or they are, or they will be Noriega followers — they don't want Noriega in jail."
With Hoeveler's order, it appears that Noriega will not go back to Panama but will instead go to France to serve time there. A federal magistrate judge will hear that extradition request Tuesday.