January 25, 2010 / 11:12 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. court rejects Noriega appeal to bar extradition

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way on Monday for the extradition of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to France, where he has been convicted on money laundering charges.

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

The justices let stand a ruling by a federal appeals court that the U.S. government can legally send Noriega to France without violating his rights as a prisoner of war.

Noriega’s attorneys argued that as a prisoner of war, he must be sent back to Panama. Noriega, who finished his U.S. prison sentence for drug trafficking two years ago, has remained in a Florida prison while fighting his extradition.

An army general and one-time CIA informant, Noriega was captured in Panama in January 1990 two weeks after U.S. troops invaded the country. After being brought to Miami to stand trial, he was declared a prisoner of war.

He was convicted in Miami of drug trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy in 1992. He also was convicted in absentia in France of laundering cocaine profits through French banks and using the money to buy three luxury apartments. Noriega can seek a new trial in France if extradited.

The appeals court rejected Noriega’s claim that his extradition to France would violate his rights under the Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of prisoners of war.

The U.S. government has supported France’s extradition request and said the Geneva Conventions do not apply to Noriega’s case.

Noriega’s attorneys have said that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still must sign off on his extradition.

In Florida, Noriega’s lawyer said the Supreme Court decision not to stop the extradition could have grave consequences for U.S. soldiers captured abroad.

“General Noriega is the only prisoner of war held by the United States. This has opened the way for hostile foreign governments such as Iran, North Korea, that if they ever capture an American soldier, after they’re finished with him they can give him to all their friends,” said attorney Frank Rubino.

“This sends a message to foreign governments that you can do anything you want to American soldiers because we do this with foreign soldiers ... pass him around from country to country,” he said.

Rubino said Panama had asked France to seek Noriega’s extradition to prevent his return to his homeland, where he faces much more serious charges than in France.

“We just don’t think it’s appropriate to General Noriega after serving more than 17 years in an American jail, to be sent to France for a 22-year-old charge of buying an apartment in Paris,” Rubino said.

The U.S. Justice Department said further review of Noriega’s case was unwarranted. The Supreme Court agreed and rejected his appeal without comment.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented. Thomas said the court should hear the case and should clarify the law for prisoners of war being held by the United States.

“Providing that guidance in this case would allow us to say what the law is without the unnecessary delay and other complications that could burden a decision on these questions in Guantanamo or other detainee litigation arising out of the conflict with al Qaeda,” Thomas wrote in his dissent.

Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami, editing by Anthony Boadle

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