A federal judge in Miami paved the way on Friday for Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian general ousted by the US military in 1989, to face money-laundering charges in France once his prison term in the US ends next month.
US District Judge William Hoeveler rejected arguments by Noriega's lawyers that his status as a prisoner of war in the US required the administration of US President George W. Bush to return him to Panama.
Noriega may still appeal the ruling, which will keep him in US custody for some weeks or months. Frank Rubino, Noriega's lawyer, said he would decide in the next week whether to challenge the ruling in the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit or with the United Nations.
Noriega was convicted in absentia in France in 1999 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for laundering more than US$3 million in drug proceeds. France has agreed to hold a new trial if he is extradited.
He also faces legal problems in Panama, where he was convicted in absentia of embezzlement, corruption and for ordering the killing of political opponents. Although he faces up to 60 years in prison for those charges, Panamanian law allows older convicts to serve prison time at home. Noriega's lawyers in Panama have expressed confidence they can beat the charges there and keep him out of jail.
Hoeveler, who presided over Noriega's criminal trial in Miami, ruled that his status does not prevent him from future prosecution.
"This court never intended for the proclamation of defendant as a POW to shield him from all future prosecutions for serious crimes he is alleged to have committed," Hoeveler said in his 12-page ruling. "That being said, even the most vile offender is entitled to the same protections as those owed to a law-abiding soldier once they have been declared a POW. It appears that the extradition proceedings should proceed uninterrupted."
Noriega, 72, served 15 years for drug trafficking and racketeering, half of his 30-year sentence, because of automatic parole and good behavior.
As a result of his prisoner of war status, Noriega served his time in a medium-security prison, where he was housed separately from other inmates. He had access to a telephone, more regular visiting hours and even received a small salary, as required by the Geneva Convention.
The first Bush administration ordered the invasion in 1989 to oust Noriega, who was once an asset of the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration but was later found to have accepted payments to allow cocaine bound for the US to pass through Panama.
The administration has said it would prefer to send Noriega to France. The official explanation is that once he is sent to Panama, he cannot be extradited to any other countries. But officials say privately that there is fear that Noriega may see no jail time in Panama, where some of his former allies still hold positions of power.