July 7, 2010 / 9:47 PM / 7 years ago

Ex-Panama dictator Noriega sentenced to 7 years

PARIS (Reuters) - Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was sentenced to seven years’ jail in France on Wednesday for laundering millions of euros into French bank accounts and properties in the 1980s.

<p>Manuel Noriega gestures while giving a speech in Panama City in this March 1988 file photo. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn/Files</p>

The 76-year-old former general arrived in April to be retried in a Paris court after being extradited from the United States, where he had been in prison for drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering.

He was convicted in France in absentia in 1999 of laundering money from Colombian drug cartels.

The Paris criminal court also ordered the confiscation of 2.3 million euros ($2.9 million) from the accounts and ordered 1 million euros ($1.26 million) to be paid in damages to Panama.

Panamanian authorities have also issued an extradition request and insist they want the former dictator to return to his country to face trial.

“The government maintains its position ... Noriega must comply with the requests of Panamanian judicial authorities and face trial pending in Panama,” the country’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

If returned to his home country, Noriega faces a maximum 20-year prison sentence for various crimes, although given his age he would serve his sentence under house arrest.

“He should come back and pay (for his crimes) here ... He did a lot of bad things,” said Ulpidia Camarena, 47, an office assistant Panama City.

“It started here, it should finish here,” she said.

Born in the slums, Noriega muscled his way to the top of Panama’s military in the early 1980s and maintained a firm grip on power until being ousted by U.S. forces in 1989.

During his rule, Panama became a major distribution platform for cocaine from Colombian drug cartels, with multi-million-dollar kickbacks going straight to the dictator.

The prison sentence is less than the 10 years originally sought by the prosecution. Under French law Noriega, who served 20 years in a U.S. prison including almost three years pending extradition, can apply for parole in mid-sentence, meaning he could be released in about a year.

Noriega had been held pending his trial at the Sante prison in Paris, 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.

Defense lawyers had argued that his extradition to France was unlawful and that as a prisoner of war -- a status granted to him by the United States -- he was not subject to the jurisdiction of French courts.

“We denounce this decision with political connotations which no doubt suits American authorities,” Noriega’s lawyer Olivier Metzner told reporters, adding no decision had been made on whether to appeal.

Additional reporting and writing by John Irish and additional reporting by Sean Mattson in Panama City, Editing by Sandra Maler

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