Why Has Manuel Noriega Ended Up in Paris?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alberto Lowe / Reuters

Manuel Noriega

As Manuel Noriega awoke to his first full day in his Paris jail cell, questions raged about why Panama's ailing former dictator was there at all. After being extradited to France from a Miami prison on Tuesday, April 27, Noriega faces charges of laundering more than $3 million in drug money during the 1980s by buying property in Paris. But he faces far more serious charges back home in Panama — including the murders of one of the country's biggest political figures and several military officers.

So why, ask his lawyers, was he not sent home to face justice? There are usually two bases for extradition, says Noriega's Miami attorney Frank A. Rubino, who fought hard to get the Department of Justice to allow his client to go home to Panama. "Who asks first for extradition — and Panama was way before France — and which charge is more serious," he told TIME on Wednesday.

On those grounds, Panama seems to have a stronger claim than France to try Noriega on its soil. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney told TIME the extradition decision was made after years of legal appeals to send him to Panama instead. All, she noted, were rejected. Noriega's options finally ran out when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a legal challenge last month concerning his extradition to France. Rubino believes there may have been a backroom deal between U.S. and Panamanian officials to keep Noriega out of Panama, although he admits he has no proof to back up his suspicions.

Few in Panama appear to be complaining that their former dictator has not returned home to stand trial. That, say human-rights researchers and attorneys, is because Noriega would likely get off practically scot-free in Panama. Panama's government amended the country's criminal code in 2008, allowing convicted criminals older than 75 to serve their sentences under house arrest rather than in jail. The rule was widely assumed to be in preparation for the homecoming of Noriega, who is now 76, and was introduced shortly after Noriega ended his 17-year sentence in a Miami jail.

In contrast, under France's money-laundering laws, Noriega is looking at about 10 years in a French jail. "For us, it is better that he is serving time in prison in another country," says Alida Benedetti, an attorney in Panama City who was a human-rights activist during Noriega's eight-year military rule in the 1980s. "He deserves jail. He killed a lot of people. We don't want him back."

The government of Panama says it will submit a repatriation request to the French judge who will be overseeing the case. Noriega's lawyers say they will fight to have him sent home by arguing that his imprisonment in France violates his immunity as a former head of state and his status as a prisoner of war. "We will fight the case on the basis of the Geneva Conventions," Noriega's lawyer in Paris, Olivier Metzner, told TIME on Wednesday, referring to the international treaties governing POWs. Noriega was classified as a POW after 2007, when he completed his sentence in Miami for drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering.

Noriega stayed in jail during the two-year legal tussle between France and Noriega's lawyers over Paris' extradition request. A French judge sentenced Noriega in absentia to 10 years, but France agreed to a new trial under the extradition terms. Noriega's Panamanian lawyers and two of his three daughters were due to arrive in Paris on Wednesday to begin preparing for the May 12 hearing in a local court, when a judge will decide whether he will stand trial in France. His lawyers say they will continue to press for repatriation to Panama in that hearing.

Panama's ambassador to France, Henry Faarup, told TIME Noriega was being held in a special cell, separate from the rest of the inmates, and had been assured that he would receive his medication for high blood pressure. The stooped, diminutive 76-year-old who landed in Paris on Tuesday was in stark contrast to the fearsome general who once ruled Panama with an iron fist. Noriega shuffled off an Air France plane, an ailing man in a crumpled white hat. More than 20 years have passed since thousands of U.S. troops invaded Panama in December 1989 and forcibly removed Noriega from power, ending his eight-year military dictatorship.

Still unresolved is how many Panamanians died during the U.S. battle to capture Noriega. Pentagon officials put the estimate at about 250, while Panama says the figure is far higher. Noriega surrendered after weeks of hiding in the Vatican embassy while the U.S. military blasted rock music at full volume outside the building. By then, he had turned from being a key CIA asset during the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador — one who provided crucial information about competing drug cartels — to a major cocaine trafficker. Popular opposition to his rule mounted after the 1985 beheading of Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and key Noriega rival. According to an official investigation by Panama after the U.S. invasion, Noriega ordered Spadafora's death. According to the same report, Noriega ordered several military officers killed in the months before the invasion. He has been convicted of all those murders, but it seems increasingly unlikely that he will serve time for them.

— With reporting by Siobhan Morrissey / Miami