A US federal judge on Thursday blocked the extradition of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to France, saying that he had not exhausted his possible appeals.
Noriega, 73, in September completed a 17-year US prison term on drug charges but has remained in US custody while appealing his extradition to France where he faces money laundering charges.
Judge Paul Huck in Miami said that the Panamanian former strongman was entitled to have his appeals heard by a court in the state of Georgia, and possibly even before the US Supreme Court.
"It appears that these are legal issues on which no other federal court has ruled, directly or indirectly," Huck said, ordering that the extradition procedures remain suspended.
The ruling was likely to delay Noriega's extradition -- if it happens at all -- by months or even years, court observers said, with two further levels of appeal remaining.
"There are two appellate courts in US, and the judge granted Noriega's right to go until the whole process of appealing is finished at the US Supreme Court," Noriega's lawyer Jon May said.
Earlier this month the federal judge rejected a petition by Noriega to prevent his extradition on grounds that in France he would be denied the benefits he has in the US as a prisoner of war.
A French court sentenced Noriega to 10 years in prison in 1999 after his conviction in absentia on various charges, but authorities say he would be given a new trial on allegations that he deposited US$3.15 million in cocaine trafficking profits in French bank accounts in the 1980s.
The former army general held sway in Panama from 1984 until he surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990, to US troops who had invaded the country three weeks earlier.
A US Cold War ally and one-time CIA informant whose involvement with drug trafficking eventually became an embarrassment for Washington, Noriega was then flown on a military plane to Miami, where he was tried on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering.
Noriega's lawyers have sought to have him not extradited but returned to Panama, arguing that he should be repatriated under the international Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.
The Panamanian government has also said that it will seek Noriega's extradition to his home country, where he faces prosecution over the disappearances and murders of opposition members, but it has not yet launched such a procedure.
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