World

French court hands Panama's ex-dictator Noriega 7-year prison term for laundering drug money

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega

PARIS (AP) — A Paris court on Wednesday convicted aging former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega of laundering drug money in France and ordered him to spend seven years behind bars — a decision that left friends and foes worried he might die in a prison far from home.

The sentence in France, where Noriega was extradited 10 weeks ago, came on top of his two decades already spent in a U.S. prison. The court said there was enough evidence to establish that millions of euros that flowed through Noriega's French bank accounts in the late 1980s were kickbacks from drug traffickers.

For Noriega, who gives his age as 76 and is in poor health, the future is cloudy. Despite the seven-year sentence, he is likely to be eligible for parole within a year. However, Panama is seeking his extradition from France on much more serious crimes, including the murder of political opponents.

"The government maintains its position that Panamanian citizen Manuel Antonio Noriega should complete the sentences handed down by Panamanian judicial authorities and confront pending processes in Panama," the Panamanian government said in a statement.

An extradition would require approval from a host of French judges and top officials, as well as from the United States, and a decision could take time. Noriega's lawyers say he wants to return home and will not fight an extradition.

They also raised fears he could die in a French prison — worries shared by Panamanians who fought against human rights abuses during Noriega's 1983-1989 regime. They want to see him face justice at home.

"The rights of all the countries have prevailed except ours," said Alberto Almanza, who headed a Truth Commission for more than a decade to investigate rights abuses under Noriega.

"He's going to die in jail, and with him the truth," Almanza said.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Virginia Staab was asked for her government's reaction to Noriega's sentencing. "It was for the French courts to decide. This was a French matter, and the French judicial system has made its pronouncement," she said Wednesday.

Regarding allegations that France has failed to provide Noriega with international prisoner of war status, Stabb said Washington is "confident that France adheres to its assurances to the United States regarding the treatment of Mr. Noriega during his incarceration in France."

Noriega was deposed after a 1989 U.S. invasion and went on to serve 20 years in a Florida prison for drug trafficking. He was extradited to France in April to face accusations he used French bank accounts to hide kickbacks from the powerful Medellin cocaine cartel.

In addition to ordering jail time for Noriega, the three-judge panel ordered the seizure of euro2.3 million ($2.89 million) that has long been frozen in Noriega's French bank accounts. They also demanded that he pay euro1 million ($1.3 million) in damages to Panama and euro2.3 million ($2.9 million) in customs fines.

Lawyers for the one-time CIA asset — who eventually had a dramatic falling out with Washington — complained that the court's decision was score-settling by the United States.

Defense lawyer Olivier Metzner said the verdict "has a political connotation, which is doubtless going to please American authorities."

His legal team was deciding whether to appeal, and have 10 days to do so.

Noriega appeared in court Wednesday with his hair slicked back, wearing a dark suit with a white handkerchief neatly folded in his pocket. He is not allowed to wear his trademark military uniform in France because he does not have prisoner-of-war status here. He and his daughters listened and nodded as lawyers explained the verdict to him.

Noriega served out his U.S. sentence in 2007, but he stayed behind bars for 32 months during a protracted battle to fight extradition to France.

Defense lawyer Antonin Levy said those 32 months count toward the French sentence, which would mean Noriega could be up for parole within a year.

Noriega had long been considered an important CIA asset before he joined forces with drug traffickers and was implicated in the death of a political opponent. His lawyers suggested his U.S. conviction was part of a strategy to keep Noriega silent after his relationship with the CIA went bad.

In court last week, Noriega portrayed himself as a foe of drug traffickers and said the money in his French accounts came from personal and family businesses, as well as from CIA payments.

In an energetic hour-long monologue, Noriega blamed the U.S. for a "conspiracy" that has kept him behind bars for 20 years. He said his problems began when he refused to cooperate in a U.S. plan aimed at ousting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Noriega is being held at the La Sante prison in southern Paris. His lawyers say the prison is squalid and unfit for a man of his rank, health and age.

Though there is confusion about his true date of birth, Noriega told the court he was 76. His lawyers say he has blood pressure problems and is paralyzed on one side following a stroke.

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Associated Press writers Pierre-Antoine Souchard and Kathia Martinez in Panama City contributed to this report.