Panama's Manuel Noriega 'to fight charges' in France





Panamanian ex-leader Manuel Noriega has appeared before French prosecutors after his US extradition and will fight charges against him, his lawyers say.

Noriega will argue French courts do not have jurisdiction to try him as he is immune from prosecution and because the statute of limitations has expired.

He was convicted in France in his absence in 1999 for money laundering but will face a new trial.

He spent more than 20 years in jail in the US on drugs charges.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday signed a "surrender warrant" and Noriega was taken to Miami airport and handed to French prison officials on an Air France plane.

'Incompetent'

Noriega's plane arrived in Paris shortly before 0800 local time (0600 GMT).

Noriega, who is in his mid-70s, was taken to appear before prosecutors and notified of the international arrest warrant against him.

One of Noriega's French lawyers, Olivier Metzner, said after the closed-doors hearing that his client appeared "much weakened" and was "receiving medical treatment".

Noriega was then driven away in an armoured car. In the afternoon he will return and a judge will decide whether to place him under temporary detention until his case is referred to a criminal court.

His lawyers say they will argue for his immediate release, although analysts say if he could achieve house arrest it would be a major success.

A spokesman for the French justice ministry, Guillaume Didier, said that Noriega could go on trial within two months.

However another Noriega lawyer in France, Yves Leberquier, signalled a tough legal battle ahead.



He said Noriega would challenge French jurisdiction on the grounds of his immunity from prosecution as a former head of state and because the statute of limitations had expired.

Mr Leberquier also said there were question marks about Noriega's status as a prisoner of war.

A Miami judge declared Noriega a POW after the 1992 drugs sentencing, allowing him prison privileges that included the ability to wear his military uniform and insignia.

Mr Leberquier said the French system could not accommodate such a status.

He told the Associated Press news agency: "We're not here to eventually make a moral judgment, we've got legal rules that have to be applied and respected.

"For justice to be served, the judiciary must acknowledge it is incompetent to put him on trial."

Noriega's original French sentence of 10 years was for laundering $3m in drug trafficking proceeds by buying luxury apartments in Paris.

However, part of the extradition process with the US included an agreement Noriega would be given a new trial.

Noriega had wanted to be sent back to Panama after finishing his 17-year jail sentence in 2007.

But in February the US Supreme Court rejected his final appeal against extradition to France.

Panama's government said it respected the "sovereign decision" but insisted it would seek his return to serve outstanding prison sentences there.

Noriega's lawyer in Miami, Frank Rubino, said he had not been notified of the extradition and had only learned of it from the media.

"I'm surprised [the government] didn't put a black hood over his head and drag him out in the middle of the night."

Mr Rubino said Panama was "terrified" that Noriega would return "even though all he would do is sit on his porch and play with his grandchildren. He knows where the skeletons are buried".

Invasion

Noriega became de facto ruler of Panama in 1983 and was supported by the US until 1987. But in 1988 he was indicted in the US for drug trafficking.

The US invaded following the death of a US marine in Panama City and Noriega surrendered on 3 January 1990.

In 1992, he was convicted in Miami of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. He was handed a 40-year prison sentence, later reduced to 30 years, and then 17 years for good behaviour.



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