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Fate of former Panama dictator remains in limbo

Three nations want Noriega

In his effort to be sent home, General Manuel Antonio Noriega goes before a federal appeals court on Wednesday. In his effort to be sent home, General Manuel Antonio Noriega goes before a federal appeals court on Wednesday.
By Curt Anderson
Associated Press / January 11, 2009
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MIAMI - As the only prisoner of war held on US soil, inmate No. 38699-079 gets annual visits from the Red Cross and can wear his military uniform and insignia when he goes to court.

General Manuel Antonio Noriega frequently sees his wife and children, who make the trip to his private bungalow at a federal prison near Miami from their home in Panama. The onetime CIA operative is a news junkie, reads voraciously about history and politics, and is working on a memoir.

Whether the vanquished dictator's story ends in prison or freedom, at home or abroad, depends on how courts in three countries on two continents decide to punish him for his drug-running past.

More than a year ago, Noriega completed his sentence for drug racketeering and money laundering and thought he was headed home. Instead, US officials dropped a legal bomb: Noriega would be extradited to France to stand trial on more money laundering charges.

On Wednesday, a federal appeals court will hear arguments on Noriega's claim that as a POW he should immediately be repatriated, 19 years after the United States invaded Panama to remove him from power.

Three federal judges in Miami have rejected Noriega's theory. Still, Frank Rubino, one of Noriega's attorneys, said his client is unbowed.

"He now has hope and faith that the appellate courts will triumph over politics and send him home," Rubino said.

Less than a year in office, President George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion because Noriega had become increasingly belligerent toward the United States, ignored democratic election results, and essentially turned Panama into a way station and banker for Colombia's powerful Medellin cocaine cartel.

US forces quickly overwhelmed Panama's defenses, with the whole operation taking less than a month.

Noriega took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City. US troops blasted the building with loud rock music until the Vatican complained, and Noriega finally surrendered.

He was immediately flown to Miami to stand trial and has been in US custody ever since.

Noriega, who declined repeated interview requests, has said he believes his ouster was rooted in his refusal to help the United States support the Contras attempting to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist government in the 1980s.

It didn't come to light until well after the invasion that Noriega had long been on the CIA payroll as a key asset, including acting as a back channel to the communist government of Cuba's Fidel Castro. One Air Force colonel testified that Noriega was "the best source of information the United States had in Latin America."

Noriega was convicted of eight counts in April 1992 and got a 40-year prison sentence. Later that year, on the eve of his transfer to a maximum security prison, Noriega's lawyers persuaded US District Judge William Hoeveler to declare him a POW who should be accorded full protection under the Geneva Conventions. It was the first ruling of its kind in US history, and set the stage for the court battle now stretching into 2009.

Hoeveler reduced Noriega's sentence to 30 years in 1999, and with time off for good behavior, the inmate was set for release Sept. 9, 2007. Then the French extradition request surfaced.

France wants to try Noriega on charges of laundering $25 million in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three posh Paris apartments.

Panama has its own extradition request pending with the United States, and President Martin Torrijos has said his country will file a similar request with France if Noriega is sent there.

Noriega was convicted in absentia in Panama of murder, embezzlement, and corruption and sentenced to 60 years in prison, though that could be served under house arrest.

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