Judge strikes down Noriega extradition plea

MIAMI Fri Sep 7, 2007 3:48pm EDT

Deposed Panamanian Manuel Antonio Noriega in a 1998 photo. A U.S. federal judge on Friday rejected an appeal seeking to block the extradition of Noriega to France after his long prison sentence in Florida ends on Sunday. REUTERS/Alberto Lowe

Deposed Panamanian Manuel Antonio Noriega in a 1998 photo. A U.S. federal judge on Friday rejected an appeal seeking to block the extradition of Noriega to France after his long prison sentence in Florida ends on Sunday.

Credit: Reuters/Alberto Lowe

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MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge on Friday refused to block the extradition of deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to France after his long prison sentence in Florida ends on Sunday.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, which Noriega's lawyers planned to appeal before a higher court, marked another legal setback for the 73-year-old Noriega who has been convicted in France of using illegal drug profits to buy three luxurious apartments.

In the order lifting the stay that he had imposed on Noriega's extradition on Wednesday, Hoeveler rejected allegations that France would fail to treat the ex-military strongman as a prisoner of war and abide by the protections awarded POWs under the Geneva Conventions.

Noriega was captured in January 1990 following the U.S. invasion of Panama a month earlier. He was granted POW status by Hoeveler when he faced U.S. drug trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy charges in the judge's court and convicted in 1992.

Noriega's attorneys filed motions soon after Hoeveler's ruling saying they intended to appeal his decision before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Noriega is expected to remain behind bars in a federal detention center south of Miami during the appeals process, U.S. prosecutors said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to delay signing the formal paperwork needed for Noriega's transfer to France pending the outcome of the appellate process, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

"Once the legal barriers are removed and the documentation is presented to us, you will see some pretty quick action" by the State Department, said Casey.

He said the United States supported France's request for Noriega's extradition and he saw no reason why there would be any change in that position.

MURDER CONVICTION IN PANAMA

Noriega faces far more serious charges in Panama than in France. He has been convicted in absentia of murder and human rights violations in the country he once ruled almost single-handedly.

Frank Rubino, Noriega's lead attorney, has said he wants to go home to clear his name, however, and he has accused Panamanian authorities of failing to press for his repatriation.

Thanks to recent reforms of the penal code in Panama, Noriega would likely serve out the 20-year prison term awaiting him there under house arrest, because he is more than 70 years old.

According to Julio Berrios, one of Noriega's two Panama-based attorneys, a 12-year statute of limitations could also see the crimes for which Noriega was convicted in absentia tossed out of court without any penalty after his eventual return home.

In Friday's ruling, Judge Hoeveler dismissed as "untrue" a claim by Noriega's lawyers that the U.S. government had intended to sneak their client out of the United States under cover of darkness ahead of his scheduled release on Sunday, now on hold.

The government had dismissed the cloak-and-dagger-style allegation as "unsupported, inflammatory and outlandish" in a court filing on Thursday.

"An extradition cannot be effected until the Secretary of State issues a surrender warrant. That has not happened in this case," the government filing said.

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington)

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