French court sets date for Noriega ruling

A French court will decide on September 23rd whether or not to release former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega so he can be extradited home to face imprisonment there, his lawyer said on Thursday.

Manuel Noriega is escorted onto a US Air Force aircraft (1990)
United States Air Force (File)

Noriega, who was overthrown by a US invasion in 1989, is serving a sentence in France after being convicted of money-laundering there.  

Having served five of his seven years he is eligible for parole and has asked to be released, but Prime Minister Francois Fillon has ordered that he be extradited to Panama once his sentence is over.  

If and when the pock-marked 77-year-old former general, nicknamed “Pineapple Face”, 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.  

However, the process of getting Noriega to Panama has been complicated by the Panamanian government’s sending French authorities a second extradition request, which must now also be ruled on.  

Noriega’s lawyer in Panama, Julio Berrios, has said that his country committed a “grave error” by sending a new extradition request.  

“This is a mistake by the foreign ministry, because it is delaying and hindering the extradition process,” Berrios said.  

Panamanian Foreign Minister Roberto Henriquez said the government had acted “correctly.”  

“Everything that happens in France falls under the jurisdiction of the French courts, and Panama cannot intervene,” he told reporters.  

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 (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.  

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

Panama has said the United States has given its approval for Noriega to be extradited from France. US consent is 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 power, ultimately becoming the head of the military and the country’s most feared man.

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Blundering judge frees notorious ‘drug ring’

Police officers in France were left fuming after a blundering judge got in a muddle with his calendar and accidentally released ten alleged members of a notorious drug ring.

Blundering judge frees notorious 'drug ring'
File photo: Mike Fitz

The calamitous error occurred when the magistrate at Creteil criminal court, outside Paris confused two dates in his calendar which led him to believe that the suspects had to be released back onto the streets because it would have been illegal to continue detaining them.

According to French daily Le Figaro the drug ring, known as 'Shitland', had established a "reign of terror" over an estate in Boullereaux, which has one of the highest rates for the trafficking of cannabis in the Paris area.

The gang, who had reportedly graffitied 'Bienvenue à Shitland!' (Welcome to Shitland) onto the walls of the estate, are accused of robbing residents' of their shopping on their way home from the market and demanding that neighbours pay them €10 to use the lift in their block of flats. 

They are due to face trial in April and police believed it was necessary to keep them in custody until then.

Officers were said to be "furious" over the judge's gaffe.

"We aren't blaming magistrates but this blunder will have a big impact. The investigation teams have put everything into this case over the past two years," Emmanuel Roux, the head of the national French Police Union told Le Figaro.

Police fear the gang may now never show up in court for the trial and are concerned about the knock-on effects of the men being allowed to roam the streets.
"The worst thing of all is that they will be able to walk around right under the noses of the people who witnessed their acts. They will threaten them and put all kinds of pressure on all kinds of good people with no guarantees that they will all attend their trial in April," said one police officer working in Val-de-Marne.   
Some police officers from the police union Alliance even pointed the finger at Justice Minister Christine Taubira. "It would be good if justice was applied to the same extent that it is demanded from police officers," Jean-Claude Delage, secretary general of the police union Alliance told Le Figaro.
If found guilty at trial, the gang members can expect sever jail sentences. However the magistrate's union said the case has been "severely compromised" thanks to the judge's error.