PARIS (Reuters) - Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega must remain in prison pending a retrial in France on money laundering charges, a judge ruled on Tuesday after the convicted drug smuggler was extradited from the United States.
His lawyers had been seeking an immediate release, but a judge said Noriega could not be trusted to stay in France if he was freed on bail. “His release ... would certainly lead to an escape abroad,” the judge told an open hearing.
Noriega, 76, a tough slum kid who muscled his way to the top of Panama’s military before he was overthrown in a 1989 U.S. invasion, looked frail as he boarded a plane to Paris from Miami, where he completed a 17-year sentence on drug charges.
He was convicted in France in his absence in 1999 for money laundering and will now face a new trial in the next two months.
Until then, he will stay in Paris’s La Sante prison, already home to another famous foreign inmate, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal — a Venezuelan radical sentenced to a life term for murder.
Noriega, the former self-declared “Maximum Leader” of Panama, was tried and convicted in a Miami court in 1992 of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. He said he was innocent and had helped U.S. intelligence and anti-drug efforts.
He was subsequently found guilty in France of laundering cocaine profits through French banks and using the money to buy three luxury apartments here.
The former general, known for his burly figure and pockmarked face that earned him the nickname of “Pineapple Face,” was whisked out of Charles de Gaulle airport on arrival and to the Justice Court, where he was placed under arrest.
“He is old and sick ... he had a stroke about four years ago and it has left him a little handicapped on the right hand side,” said Yves Leberquier, one of Noriega’s French lawyers.
Noriega faces a maximum 10 year sentence. His lawyers are demanding the case be dropped and their client freed.
They argue that as a prisoner of war — a status granted to him by the United States — and as a former head of state, the French courts have no jurisdiction to try him.
Oliver Metzner, another of his lawyers, said they would appeal against Tuesday’s ruling and argued that he should not face any judicial process in France.
“We will do everything to show his place is not in France and that this man must return to his country, which is what Panama requests,” Metzner said.
Panama’s ambassador to France, Henry Faarup, told Reuters that his country would seek Noriega’s extradition to Panama, where he faced 20 years imprisonment for various crimes.
“Since he is 76 years old, there is a law that after 70 years you cannot be put in jail, but only under house arrest. Maybe that’s what he wants,” Faarup said.
Noriega was once an ally of the United States and was trained at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas before they fell out and he became one of Washington’s most vilified foes, at a time when Central America was in turmoil.
After years of protests in Panama that he ruthlessly crushed, U.S. troops invaded in December 1989 in their largest military intervention at the time since the Vietnam War.
He surrendered in January 1990 after holing up in the Vatican Embassy, unable to withstand an assault of loud rock music that Americans blasted at the mission night and day.
Noriega finished his U.S. sentence for drug trafficking two years ago but had remained in a Florida prison while fighting in vain against extradition to France.
With its 100-bank financial center, Panama was used to launder bales of drug cash through banks and as a center for the processing and transshipment of cocaine. Multi-million dollar kickbacks went directly to Noriega.
In February 1988, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had Noriega indicted on federal drug charges relating to cocaine trafficking and money laundering. The U.S. Congress imposed economic sanctions to press him to leave power.
President George Bush ordered the invasion, dubbed “Operation Just Cause” with the aim of capturing Noriega.
Additional reporting by Sophie Taylor and Laure Bretton; editing by Angus MacSwan, Crispian Balmer and Mark Heinrich