Noriega takes the stand in French trial

After 20 years in prison in the U.S., the former Panamanian dictator could face 10 more for money laundering

Published June 28, 2010 4:42PM (EDT)

Manuel Noriega took the stand at his money laundering trial in France on Monday, and the former Panamanian dictator appeared confused about the most basic of biographical information: his age.

Noriega's lawyers also complained about dirty, dilapidated conditions in the prison where their client is being held and the way he was extradited from the United States in April.

The former military strongman, who spent 20 years in U.S. custody for drug trafficking, could be jailed for 10 years if he is convicted as charged in France.

Noriega, who listened to the proceedings through a translator without showing emotion, had his hair slicked back and wore a dark suit and red tie. He is not permitted to wear his military uniform in France since he is not being treated as a prisoner of war here.

His three daughters -- dressed to the nines in sleek outfits and heels -- were there to support him.

The former dictator started his brief testimony with a stumble Monday, when he was asked about discrepancies in his date of birth on different legal documents.

His shoulders trembled as he stood. Asked to state his birth date, Noriega initially said Feb. 11, 1936, then immediately corrected himself, saying he was born in 1934. He spoke through a translator.

The Paris trial is a new legal battle for the aging strongman, deposed after a 1989 U.S. invasion.

After serving 20 years in a Florida prison for drug racketeering and money laundering, he was extradited to Paris in April to face accusations that he tried to hide cocaine profits in French banks.

Since then, Noriega has been held at the La Sante prison in southern Paris.

His lawyers argued Monday that the prison is unfit for him. They also argued that his extradition from the U.S. should be annulled because France is not treating him as a prisoner of war. In Miami, Noriega had separate quarters in prison and the right to wear his military uniform and insignia.

Lawyer Yves Leberquier said Noriega's being held in Paris in "conditions that are unacceptable." He read a report by an EU human rights commissioner condemning the state of La Sante as "at the limits of human dignity."

Noriega's cell measures 2 meters by 3 meters (7 feet by 10 feet), Leberquier said. He said Noriega has been asking to see a doctor for two months and hasn't yet seen one. Leberquier said Noriega suffers from blood pressure problems and is paralyzed on the left side because of a stroke 4 years ago.

The lawyer challenged the judges to visit La Sante and determine whether the conditions adhered to the Geneva Conventions.

Another defense lawyer, Olivier Metzner, noted the "immense services" Noriega paid to France, and noted that he was made commander in the Legion of Honor.

Much of Monday's proceedings were devoted to a detailed summary of the allegations against Noriega. Judge Agnes Quantin detailed the complex financial manipulations allegedly used to feed accounts in France held by Noriega, his wife and daughters, as well as various Panamanian diplomats in Europe.

She also read summaries of testimony against Noriega, some of it provided to French authorities by their American counterparts, giving details about Noriega's alleged dealings with the powerful Medellin cartel in Colombia.

Panama is also seeking Noriega's extradition, bringing hope to his countrymen who want to see the former military strongman face justice at home for alleged torture and killings of opponents.

France already convicted Noriega and his wife in absentia in 1999 for laundering several million dollars in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three posh Paris apartments on the Left Bank.

France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited. Noriega's wife, Felicidad Sieiro de Noriega, is living in Panama and faces no charges there.

The in-absentia conviction, obtained by The Associated Press, says Noriega "knew that (the money) came directly or indirectly from drug trafficking." It said he helped Colombia's Medellin drug cartel by authorizing the transport of cocaine through Panama en route to the United States.

Noriega has maintained that he fought against drug trafficking and that the money came from other sources, including payments from the CIA. He had been considered a valued CIA asset for years before he joined forces with drug traffickers and was implicated in the death of a political opponent.

The French indictment says Noriega was born in 1938, although his legal team says he was born four years earlier. As a youth, he claimed to be older than he was to win a scholarship to a military academy in Peru and his exact age remains in dispute.

Three judges, including two women, were presiding the trial, which was held in a small courtroom in Paris' main courthouse. Noriega was following his lawyers' arguments through a translator, who was standing outside the defendant's box, made of wood with a fenced ceiling.


Associated Press writer Pierre-Antoine Souchard contributed to this report.

By Jenny Barchfield

MORE FROM Jenny Barchfield

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Crime France