Manuel Noriega Can Be Extradited to France Upon Release From U.S. Prison, Judge Rules

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega can be extradited to France once he completes his U.S. prison sentence for a 1992 drug trafficking conviction, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Noriega, 72, is due to be released from a Miami prison on Sept. 9.

He wants U.S. officials to send him back to his home country, but France wants him to face charges of laundering about $3.15 million in drug profits through transactions that included buying luxurious apartments in Paris.

Noreiga wants to be returned to Panama because he wants to fight a conviction in the slayings of two political opponents.

The ruling is technically a recommendation to the State Department. A higher-ranking federal judge last week rejected claims by Noriega's lawyers that he should be returned to Panama because he was held in the U.S. as a prisoner of war.

France has assured the U.S. through diplomatic channels that Noriega will continue to be held there as a POW once extradited.

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 drug traffickers. It later emerged that Noriega had been on the CIA payroll for years, assisting U.S. interests throughout Latin America, including acting as liaison to Cuban President Fidel Castro.

In 1992, Noriega was tried and convicted in the U.S. of accepting bribes to allow shipments of U.S.-bound cocaine through Panama. His 30-year sentence has been reduced for good behavior.

Panamanians, meanwhile, are split on whether Noriega should be imprisoned in their country. A poll in July before the U.S. announced plans to try to extradite him to France found 47 percent want him imprisoned in Panama and 44 percent want him sent to a third country. The poll of 1,218 people conducted by Dichter & Neira Latin Research Network for La Prensa newspaper had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.