Ex-Dictator Noriega in Limbo as Release Looms A federal judge in Miami 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 Sept. 9, after serving 17 years on drug trafficking and racketeering charges.
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Ex-Dictator Noriega in Limbo as Release Looms

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Ex-Dictator Noriega in Limbo as Release Looms

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Ex-Dictator Noriega in Limbo as Release Looms

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In Miami today, a federal judge ruled that former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega can be extradited to France.

Noriega is scheduled to be released from federal prison in Miami next month after serving 17 years on drug trafficking and racketeering charges. He could serve more time in France if he's convicted there of money laundering charges.

From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: France is seeking Noriega's extradition to serve time on money laundering charges related 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 detail about why they favor sending Noriega to France rather than Panama, but only say each request is evaluated separately, and the Office of International Affairs determined that the French application request was valid.

Noriega's lawyers went to court to try to block the extradition, saying under the Geneva Convention, the former dictator should be repatriated to his home country.

Today, Federal Judge William Hoeveler ruled that the Geneva Convention should not prevent Noriega's extradition to another country. In his order, Judge Hoeveler said, quote, "this court never intended for the proclamation of defendant as a POW to shield him from all future prosecutions for serious crimes he's alleged to have committed."

Anthony Arend is an expert on extradition law at Georgetown University. He says Judge Hoeveler's ruling takes a reasonable approach toward the Geneva Convention.

Professor ANTHONY AREND (Director, Institute for International Law and Politics, Georgetown University): Because France is a party to the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, we could certainly transfer him to France, and as long as we have every indication that France is going to abide by its obligations under the convention, that would be perfectly legal.

ALLEN: For many of those involved in the case over the past few weeks, there was a sense of deja vu in the air in Judge Hoeveler's Miami courtroom. It was the same place where Noriega was convicted 15 years ago. The judge then was William Hoeveler. Many of the court personnel and attorneys were also the same. And there was Manuel Noriega, now 72 years old, moving a little slower, but wearing his military uniform and addressing the court in Spanish.

While Judge 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 U.S. 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 they want Noriega back. Last week in Panama, plans apparently were already underway 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.

Professor MIGUEL ANTONIO BERNAL (Activist; University of Panama): Certainly because a lot of people - we are going to take the streets to request the government to put Noriega in jail. And the government - because they were or they are or they will be Noriega's followers - they don't want Noriega in jail.

ALLEN: With Judge Hoeveler's order, it now appears Manuel Noriega will not be going back to Panama but to France to serve time there. A federal magistrate judge will hear that extradition request next Tuesday.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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