France to extradite Noriega to Panama

Panama's ex-strongman Manuel Noriega looked set Wednesday to finally return home -- and go straight into custody there -- after more than two decades in foreign prisons, as France ordered his extradition.

The pock-marked 77-year-old general nicknamed “Pineapple Face,” deposed by US troops who invaded Panama in 1989 to put an end to his drug-running activities, could be back in his native land as early as next month.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon signed the extradition order a month ago and Noriega was notified of it last Friday, officials said. Noriega has one month to appeal the decision, but his lawyer said he does not plan to do so.

A legal hearing has been set for September 8 to finalise the execution of the extradition order, lawyer Yves Leberquier told AFP.

In Panama, officials said everything was ready for Noriega to be jailed on his return, after what his defence lawyer in the country, Julio Berrios, called a “tough battle” to fight extradition.

While President Ricardo Martinelli has maintained a cautious silence over the affair, cabinet chief Roxana Mendez said: “Everything is ready. We just have to paint and put in a mattress.”

Foreign Minister Alvaro Aleman said Noriega could be extradited back to Panama in October.

Berrios would not be drawn on whether Noriega intended to launch any further appeals, saying any further legal action would still have to be discussed.

If and when Noriega does arrive back in Panama, he is expected to have to begin serving the lengthy sentences he received in absentia there.

He has three convictions for gruesome human rights violations, including the death of a military commander, dating to his military rule from 1983 to 1989. Each conviction carries a 20-year prison sentence.

The one-time strongman was a key asset for the US Central Intelligence Agency but fell out with Washington when he allegedly turned his strategically important country into a drugs hub.

He was sentenced by a Paris court in July last year to seven years in jail for laundering the equivalent of 2.3 million euros (then $2.8 million) from Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel through French banks.

The drug money transited through the now-defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International in the late 1980s and was used by Noriega’s wife and a shell company to buy three luxury apartments in Paris.

A French court had previously sentenced Noriega to 10 years in jail when he was tried in absentia in 1999 on the same charges, but he was given a re-trial as part of the terms for his extradition from the United States last year.

Noriega had served 20 years in a US jail in Miami — after convictions for drug trafficking and money laundering — before being extradited to France.

Panama has said that the United States has given its approval for Noriega to be extradited to Panama from France. US consent was required under existing treaties since he had not yet served his full jail term in the United States.

Noriega rose to power in Panama as a military intelligence chief close to General Omar Torrijos, a left-leaning military strongman and father of the future president.

After Torrijos’ death in a mysterious 1981 plane crash, Noriega consolidated his power, ultimately becoming the head of the military and the country’s most feared man.

By then his close relations with Washington had soured amid reports he had become deeply involved in drug trafficking and suspicions he was two-timing the CIA with the Cubans.

Escalating internal repression sent tensions soaring, culminating in the 1989 US invasion dubbed Operation Just Cause, which ended in Noriega’s capture and removal to the United States as a prisoner of war.

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