[h1]Noriega Set for Release — to Where?[/h1]
by Greg Allen
Morning Edition, July 24, 2007 · Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega — captured by U.S. forces in 1990 and later sentenced to prison on drug trafficking and racketeering charges — is set to go free in September, after serving half of his 30-year sentence.
It took a U.S. invasion of Panama and loud rock music played incessantly outside of the Vatican's embassy where Noriega had taken refuge before the pock-marked strongman was finally captured and put on trial in Miami.
With a substantial reduction of his sentence for good behavior, he will complete his term Sept. 9. Noriega's lawyer Frank Rubino said his client just wants to return to Panama.
"He wants to go back home, he wants to sit on his rocking chair, enjoy his grandchildren and be an elder statesman," Rubino said.
But that's something U.S. and French authorities are working to prevent.
Last week, federal prosecutors in Miami filed papers to extradite Noriega to France, where he was convicted in absentia to 10 years in prison for money laundering, Rubino said.
French authorities say Noriega and family members illegally transferred millions of dollars through that country's banks, using some of it to purchase three apartments in Paris. A hearing on that extradition request is scheduled later this week.
In an effort to head off his transfer to France, Noriega has filed his own legal papers. He has gone to court in Miami asking a federal judge to block the extradition on the grounds that he is not just a felon, but also a prisoner of war. And as a POW, Rubino said, Noriega has the right to return home.
"The Geneva Convention specifically states that at the secession of hostilities … the prisoner must be immediately returned to his country of origin," he said.
Federal prosecutors aren't commenting on the case or on Noriega's move to block extradition. Rubino said in his complaint that the government maintains that Noriega is not a prisoner of war.
While the U.S. and France have been making plans for Noriega's future, the government of Panama has been relatively quiet. Top officials there, including the president, said they want Noriega returned to Panama, where he is charged with murder, human rights violations and racketeering. But Panama has no plans to intervene in the French extradition request, leading Rubino to question whether they really want him back.
Panama's President Martin Torrijos has denied that his country is part of any deal that would keep Noriega from returning home.
With additional reporting from The Associated Press