Judge approves extradition of Manuel Noriega to France

By Curt Anderson, MIAMI, AP

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega can be extradited to France after completing his U.S. prison sentence on a 1992 drug trafficking conviction, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

The decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge William Turnoff was essentially a formality because a higher-ranking federal judge last week rejected claims by Noriega’s lawyers that he should be returned to Panama because he was held in the United States as a prisoner of war.

Noriega, 73, is scheduled to be released from a prison outside Miami on Sept. 9. Noriega was tried and convicted after he was captured by U.S. troops who invaded Panama in 1989 in part to oust him from power.

France wants to put Noriega on trial for allegedly laundering more than US$3 million in drug proceeds through French banks. He was convicted of the crimes while jailed in the U.S., but the French government has agreed to a new trial if he is extradited, according to court documents.

Turnoff’s ruling is technically a recommendation to the U.S. State Department for Noriega’s extradition to France, which has assured the U.S. through diplomatic channels that Noriega will continue to be held there as a POW once extradited.

Noriega’s lawyers said they will likely appeal Tuesday’s order, which is based in part on a decision last Friday by Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler rejecting the POW claims. Hoeveler originally declared Noriega a POW but said in last week’s ruling that designation does not make Noriega immune from extradition to foreign countries for other crimes.

“I can assure this court and everyone else: you haven’t heard the end of this,” said Noriega attorney Frank Rubino.