Washington: The U.S. extradited former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to France on Monday, clearing the way for him to stand trial there on money laundering charges.
The former strongman, who had been held in a federal prison just outside Miami, was placed on an overnight Air France flight to Paris, according to a Justice Department official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to comment on the case.
The flight departed shortly after 6 p.m. Miami time and was expected in Paris` Charles de Gaulle airport shortly after 8 a.m. Tuesday local time.
Yves Leberquier, one of Noriega`s lawyers, confirmed his client was headed to France. He said Noriega will be turned over to French prosecutors Tuesday and later taken before a judge who will determine whether he should remain in custody pending further action.
Leberquier said Noriega`s legal team will push for that hearing to be open "so that the defense can be totally transparent."
Earlier Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed a so-called surrender warrant for Noriega after a federal judge in Miami lifted a stay blocking the extradition last month, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
He said Clinton signed the warrant because all court challenges to his extradition were resolved.
One of Noriega`s lawyers in the U.S. said he had asked Clinton in a letter to reconsider sending him to Panama, which also has an outstanding request for the former dictator`s extradition. Frank Rubino said he got no response and was not told in advance that Noriega would be moved Monday.
"Panama is terrified that he`ll return, even though all he would do is sit on his porch and play with his grandchildren," Rubino said. "He knows where the skeletons are buried."
Noriega`s attorneys in Miami said they first heard about their client`s pending extradition from reporters and initially couldn`t get independent confirmation. "I guess the U.S. government thinks we are some kind of security risk," said another attorney, Jon May.
Panama`s foreigner minister, Juan Carlos Varela, told reporters that the United States "made the sovereign decision to send him to France, and we respect that decision."
"That does not mean that Panama is not going to insist by legal and diplomatic means on having Noriega return to this country to serve the sentences handed down by Panamanian courts," Varela added.
Noriega was ousted as Panama`s leader and put on trial following a 1989 U.S. military invasion ordered by President George H.W. Bush. Noriega was brought to Miami and was convicted of drug racketeering and related charges in 1992. France requested his extradition shortly before his U.S. drug trafficking sentence ended Sept. 9, 2007.
The French claim Noriega laundered some $3 million in drug proceeds by purchasing luxury apartments in Paris. Noriega was convicted in absentia, but France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited. He faces up to 10 years in French prison if convicted.
Federal judges and the U.S. Supreme Court turned away Noriega`s claims that the Geneva Conventions treaties regarding prisoners of war require him to be returned to Panama. Noriega was declared a POW after his 1992 drug conviction by a Miami federal judge.
Noriega, believed to be in his 70s, was Panama`s longtime intelligence chief before he took power in 1982. He had been considered a valued CIA asset for years, but as a ruler he joined forces with drug traffickers and was implicated in the death of a political opponent.