PARIS – Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, fresh out of a Miami prison where he spent two decades, was sent back behind bars in France on Tuesday to await a new legal battle – this time on charges he laundered cocaine profits by buying luxury apartments in Paris.
Hours after Noriega arrived in Paris following his extradition from the United States, a judge deemed him a flight risk and dispatched him to La Sante, a grim brick prison in southern Paris.
Noriega lost his first battle on French territory – he unsuccessfully pressed a judge to send him home to Panama. If convicted in France, he could face another 10 years in prison, a daunting prospect for the 72-year-old. Noriega’s French lawyers said they will appeal the decision to put him behind bars and say his detention and transfer are unlawful.
If Noriega had been released in France, even to house arrest, it would have been a victory after a generation in prison. It could also have been an awkward situation for France, where a string of former dictators from Haiti to Africa have settled or bought second homes in the past.
Officials are to set a trial date on May 12 for Noriega, who was deposed after a 1989 U.S. invasion and imprisoned in Florida for drug trafficking. After finishing his U.S. sentence, he was extradited from Miami and sent on a direct flight to Paris, where he was immediately served with an arrest warrant Tuesday.
France already has convicted Noriega and his wife in absentia of laundering some $7 million in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three posh Paris apartments. But France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited.
In a hearing before Paris judge Jean-Michel Maton, Noriega pleaded to be sent home to Panama, citing his prisoner of war status.
Yves Leberquier, a lawyer for Noriega, said the former dictator has been partially paralyzed since suffering a mild stroke four years ago.
Noriega’s legal team argued that it was illegal to try a former head of state who should have immunity from prosecution.
Other legal objections are that Noriega is considered a prisoner of war, a status Leberquier said French jails aren’t ready to accommodate, and that the charges against him are no longer valid because the acts he is accused of happened too long ago, the lawyer said.
Noriega was declared a POW after his 1992 drug conviction by a Miami federal judge. In Miami, Noriega had separate quarters in prison, the right to wear his military uniform and insignia, access to a television and monitoring by international rights groups.
Panama also has an outstanding request for the former dictator’s extradition. He was convicted in Panama in absentia and sentenced to 60 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, corruption and murdering opponents.