Part I of a two-part series on
the Extradition of General Manuel Noriega
PANAMA CITY – Gen. Manuel Noriega’s defense lawyers criticized the U.S. government’s surprise decision to extradite the former Panamanian dictator toFrance this week as a violation of international law and a suspicious indication of a backroom deal.
Longtime Noriega defense attorney Julio Berrío said he thinks the U.S. government’s decision to extradite Noriega to France to face money-laundering charges rather than to Panama “has to do with diplomatic agreements that are not based on law.”
Noriega was tried in absentia In Panama, and found guilty of three counts of murder. He faces a 20-year prison sentence here, which would be commuted to house arrest due to his age.
Berrío said he is “completely convinced” that Panamanian authorities privately lobbied the U.S. government to ship the 76-year-old former general to France, where he faces money laundering charges, rather than repatriate him to face murder charges in Panama.
“Neither of the past two Panamanian governments have wanted Noriega back in Panamanian territory for fear that it would have some sort of repercussion in the country,” Berrío told The Tico Times this week in an exclusive interview in Panama City.
Berrío, a professor of international law at theUniversity ofPanama, insists that the extradition of the former strongman to France instead of Panama violated several international treaties and conventions. The defense lawyer, who as a government attorney in October 1990 filed the first of Panama’s six extradition requests for Noriega – nearly a decade before France requested extradition on money laundering charges – says international law dictates that when multiple extradition requests are filed, the oldest and most serious charge is given priority.
International law also stipulates that a defendant’s nationality be taken into consideration. “Noriega is Panamanian, he’s not French,” Berrío said, noting that the general has even filed a formal request to be extraditedto Panama and not toFrance.
Plus, the lawyer says, the Geneva Convention clearly establishes that prisoners of war must be repatriated after completing their sentences abroad. So on all accounts, the U.S. government – with the alleged encouragement of Panamanian authorities – is violating international law by preventing Noriega’s return home, Berrío charged.
“Noriega wants to submit himself to Panamanian justice, so how can we deny him the right to face Panama’s tribunals?” Berrío demanded.
Marco A. Gandasegui Jr., aUniversity ofPanama professor and member of the nonprofit Center for Latin American Studies, argues that the United States’ handling of Noriega started with an illegal invasion of Panama and ended with an illegal extradition to France.
“The whole Noriega case should be subject to a general review,” Gandasegui told The Tico Times. “In the first place, the illegal capture and transport of (Noriega) in 1990 needs to be corrected. And secondly, the extradition of Noriega from the U.S. to France would have no legal grounds if Panama acted like a sovereign country.”
Neither the U.S. nor Panamanian governments have addressed allegations of wrongdoing in the Noriega case. Panamanian authorities, for their part, said they respect the U.S.’ decision and will continue to follow legal procedures to ensure Noriega is held accountable for all crimes.
“Panama will follow-up on everything that happens to him in France and will insist that he face the legal processes that follow and comply with all sentences against him,” said Panama’s Vice President and Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Varela.
A former CIA informant-turned-drug-trafficker, Noriega led Panama’s military dictatorship from 1983-1989, when he was ousted by a U.S. military invasion. Several months after the invasion, the general, who had been holed up in the Vatican City embassy in Panama, surrendered to U.S. troops and was whisked to Miami as a prisoner of war.
He was later tried and convicted on multiple charges of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. During his time in jail, Noriega suffered multiple health problems, including two strokes, according to his lawyer.
Noriega completed his sentence in 2007, after it was reduced due to good behavior. He was extradited toParis on April 26, after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a surrender warrant and denied the latestPanamanian extradition request.
Noriega’s U.S. attorney, Frank Rubino, said this week that he was not even notified of his client’s extradition toFrance.
Berrío, however, said he’s confident France will respect international law and honor Panama’s extradition request, even if the United States didn’t.
“I think the French tribunals are more objective and independent and adhere more closely to the law, and will not be submitted to the same pressures that U.S. judges were,” the lawyer said. “Sooner or later, if God allows General Noriega to continue living, he will return to his country to face charges here.”
Next week: The implications of Noriega’s possible return toPanama.