Judge Refuses to Block Extradition of Ex-Panamanian Dictator Manuel Noriega to France

A judge refused Friday to block the extradition of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to France, where he is accused of laundering millions of dollars in drug proceeds through French banks.

Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler rejected arguments by Noriega's lawyers that his status as a U.S. prisoner of war negated the French request under the Geneva Conventions and required his return home to Panama.

The decision, which could be appealed, means a hearing before another judge will go forward Tuesday on the extradition request.

Hoeveler, in a 12-page decision, said his designation of Noriega as a prisoner of war following his 1992 conviction was not meant "to shield him from all future prosecutions for serious crimes he is alleged to have committed."

Noriega, 72, is to be released from a U.S. prison Sept. 9 after serving 15 years for drug trafficking and racketeering. He faces up to 10 more years in prison in France.

While in the U.S., Noriega was convicted in Panama of embezzlement, corruption and murdering political opponents and sentenced to 60 years. But he could wind up serving only a fraction of that time or even get house arrest under Panamanian law.

U.S. forces captured Noriega after a 1989 military invasion ordered by then-President George H.W. Bush in part because of the Panamanian's links to Colombian drug traffickers. He was convicted of accepting bribes to allow shipments of U.S.-bound cocaine to pass through Panama.

Noriega also was an asset of the CIA for many years in Latin America, including acting as liaison to Cuban President Fidel Castro, according to court documents.

France wants Noriega to face charges of laundering more than $3 million in drug proceeds through five French banks. Noriega was convicted in absentia of those charges and sentenced to 10 years, but the French agreed to hold a new trial if Noriega is extradited from the U.S.