Noriega not the only dictator with Paris property

PARIS (AP) — When Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega bought posh apartments in Paris with what prosecutors say were millions in cocaine profits, he was in distinguished company.

France has long been a magnet for foreign leaders with questionable backgrounds, some seeking refuge after being deposed, others accused of spending their national riches on French luxury. Now that Noriega is facing trial in France for money laundering, anti-corruption crusaders want French justice to scrutinize this country's other questionable guests, too.

Six months ago, a French appeals court halted an investigation into three African heads of state accused of money laundering linked to their assets in France. There wasn't enough evidence of wrongdoing, the court said. Human rights groups say French justice effectively chickened out, and that the suspect funds were siphoned away from African development.

Gabon's late leader Omar Bongo died with 45 homes in France and a $1.5 million Bugatti sports car among other holdings, French and U.S. investigators have said. A third of his countrymen are in dire poverty. Much of his country has no paved roads.

The abandoned French investigation also turned up numerous French assets linked to the Republic of Congo's President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.

France, for many people in poor countries, is viewed as the world's luxury capital, and having an apartment in Paris or on the French Riviera is a sign that you're among the global elite.

Robert Palmer of anti-corruption group Global Witness said investigators had "details of (Obiang's) shopping sprees in France which included buying a number of luxury cars," and credit card bills from Sassou N'Guessou's son at Louis Vuitton and Paris' elite Hotel Costes — that human rights groups claim came from pillaged state oil revenues.

He said banks and regulators should be doing more to crack down on such customers as Obiang, whose government is considered one of Africa's worst human rights violators.

Obiang's French lawyer said his client has no assets in France and responded to the complaints with a slander suit. In Gabon, Bongo's son Ali assumed the presidency last year. His lawyer says Ali Bongo has no real estate in France.

Maud Perdriel-Vaissiere of Sherpa, one of three associations that filed a complaint that led to the investigation, says it's time to "raise the level" of French judicial action against corruption. She said the groups are taking their case to the last-resort Court of Cassation and expect a decision by July.

"We will see if the judge is brave enough to admit" that the complaint is worth pursuing, she said. France, where in the 1990s French companies could get tax deductions for bribes paid for foreign contracts, has "evolved a bit. But there is still a lot to do."

France's Foreign Ministry insisted that Noriega's arrival in France "underlines how much the scope of international law is enlarging."

A French official, asked why France is prosecuting Noriega but hasn't gone after every foreigner with dubious assets in France, insisted it's a matter of judicial proof, not politics. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

France has also proven a safe place to hide for ousted leaders or warlords fleeing poor, violent countries.

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was taken in by France. Rights groups say that under Duvalier, Haiti suffered mass killings and that at least US$120 million was stolen from the national treasury. He has always denied wrongdoing, and is demanding $4.6 million blocked in his Swiss bank accounts. His country, destitute when he left it, remains desperately poor.

Meanwhile, a man who says he coordinates a group of violent rebels in Congo, Callixte Mbarushimana, puts out their press releases from his apartment in a suburb of Paris. He is on a U.N. sanctions list as executive secretary of the FDLR rebel group, which is accused of killing at least 700 civilians last year.

He is also on Interpol's wanted list for genocide in his native Rwanda, but France won't send him there because it does not extradite citizens of countries with the death penalty. In an interview with The Associated Press last year, Mbarushimana wore a well-cut suit and described his rebel group from a leather chair in a Paris hotel.

Many of the chic Paris apartments purchased by foreigners remain empty most of the year, and are more status symbols than places to sleep.

That's the case for the three apartments bought by the Noriega family in the 1980s. Neighbors coming and going Wednesday in the three apartment buildings said they knew nothing about him or who uses the apartments now.

Noriega spent 20 years in a Miami prison for drug trafficking charges, then arrived in France on Tuesday to face charges that he and his family laundered $7 million in drug profits through French banks.

Noriega wielded intimidating power in Panama for decades. He has already been convicted in absentia in Panama and sentenced to 60 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, corruption and murdering opponents during his eight-year rule.

He also had connections to France dating to the 1970s.

French media reports say that he told investigators that he bought French weapons and planes while running Panama, and "my trips in France were known by everyone."

Noriega's case differs notably from those of most shadowy foreigners in France in that he doesn't come from a former French colony.

France's leaders long maintained cozy alliances with former colonies, particularly in Africa, a practice that Sarkozy vowed upon becoming president to stop. But on his first presidential tour of Africa, he made a point of visiting Gabon, and when Omar Bongo died, Sarkozy hailed him as a "great and loyal friend."

French authorities are to set a trial date for Noriega on May 12. Noriega spent his first night in a French jail Tuesday, and on Wednesday met with his lawyer Yves Leberquier.

Leberquier told AP afterward that the former strongman "is an old man, tired and sick" and needs wardens to support him up and down stairs. But he added that "mentally, he's getting stronger. He's a fighter."

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Associated Press writer Juan Zamorano in Panama City contributed to this report.