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Ex-dictator Noriega's extradition to Panama imminent

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-06-24

Former dictator Manuel Noriega is set to return to Panama two decades after he was apprehended by US soldiers. France has said it is ready to send the former strongman home, where he faces charges carrying another 20-year sentence.

Former dictator Manuel Noriega is packing his bags for Panama more than 20 years after he was taken from his home country, after France’s foreign ministry said this week it was preparing an extradition decree.

Noriega has one month to appeal the expected decree, but his French lawyer Yves Leberquier told FRANCE 24 on Friday his client would not contest the extradition. Noriega has said repeatedly that he wishes to return to Panama –where he is wanted on charges of killing a political rival, among other crimes.

Once Panama’s chief of police, Noriega clambered to power in the 1980’s. His steadfast anti-communism also won him a job as an informant for the CIA. But the US eventually slapped drug trafficking charges on the strongman and in 1989 launched a military invasion into Panama to apprehend him.

After more than 20 years in a Florida prison, Noriega, 77, was extradited to France last year and sentenced in July to another seven years behind bars on separate money laundering charges. He is currently in Paris' well-known Santé prison.

Noriega’s lawyers fought French extradition requests for three years before he was transferred to Paris.

An unnamed source from France’s foreign ministry told the Reuters news agency this week that the extradition decree could have Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s signature on it “by the end of the month”.

At the time of his trial in Paris last summer, Panamanian ambassador Henry Faarup explained to journalists that the former dictator wanted to return to his country, where the law stipulates that anyone over 70 years serves jail time under house arrest.

Early exit from France

The prospect that Noriega could be back in Panama barely a year after his trial in France has raised some eyebrows. As recently as April, French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told reporters Noriega would remain in France.

“The possibilities of a return to Panama before the end of his sentence in 2013 are limited,” Valero said at the time.

“He has already served more than half of his French sentence,” French lawyer Leberquier argued on Friday. The three years Noriega spent fighting French extradition in Florida counted as part of his current seven-year sentence, the lawyer noted.

Leberquier explained that the decision to send Noriega home really hinged on the consent of US authorities. While he served his full US sentence, Washington's approval of Panama’s extradition request was required under existing treaties between France and US.

Victory for Noriega?

At a press briefing on Monday, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland avoided questions over Washington’s sudden decision to rubber stamp Panama’s extradition request.

“All I’m prepared to say from the podium today is that this is both a law enforcement matter and a matter of our confidential diplomatic correspondence, so I can’t get into the details,” Nuland said.

Panamanian interior minister Roxana Mendez has said that her government was already making preparations for Noriega’s return. “We have arranged an area that takes into consideration his mobility and health problems,” Mendez said. While in US custody, Noriega suffered from prostate cancer and had a stroke.

Noriega will face charges carrying a 20-year sentence in Panama. While some observers worry that the former strongman will receive special treatment back home, Panama’s human rights arbitrator, Patria Portugal, rushed to announce Noriega will receive a fair trial.

Mrs. Portugal, who was elected to head the country’s top rights institution in March, is none other than the daughter of Heliodoro Portugal, a union leader whose disappearance Noriega is accused of orchestrating.

Date created : 2011-06-24

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