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Clark: Panama invasion deadlier than reported

By JANE SUTTON

MIAMI -- Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark testified Monday that he had heard death toll estimates of Panamanian citizens in the thousands and seen evidence of mass graves during a visit to Panama following the U.S. invasion to capture strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Ramsey testified before U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler at the request of Noriega's attorneys, who claim that drug-trafficking charges against Noriega should be dropped because the violence committed in the attack was not justified for the arrest of one man. Noriega is scheduled to go to trial Jan. 28, 1991.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Sullivan argued that the charges should stand because Noriega's personal rights were not violated. Hoeveler took the arguments under advisement and recessed the hearing. There was no indication on when he would rule.

Clark, who testified for about an hour, said he went to Panama Jan. 4 to 7 at the request of Panamanians and Americans who could not locate missing loved ones following the December invasion.

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Clark said that during the trip, he heard varying estimates of death tolls ranging from 4,000 to 7,000 Panamanian citizens, but acknowledged that none of the estimates was documented.

'The most common number of deaths I would hear was 4,000. They were estimates,' Clark said during the hearing, which Noriega attended in his four-star general uniform. 'The highest that I heard was 7,000. I had estimates of 4,000 from a bishop.'

The estimates came from hospitals, Red Cross and human rights officials and U.S. and Panamanian citizens, said Clark, 62, who is practicing law in Texas.

Clark described touring the Garden of Peace cemetery and finding signs of mass burials. Clark said one 120-foot-by-18-foot section that was newly dugged was used, according to Panamanian citizens, by U.S. soldiers to dump bodies.

'We were told of trucks comming in, the Americans, and bringing body bags,' Clark said. The bags reportedly contained two or three bodies each.

The U.S. government has officially acknowledged that the number of people killed in the invasion included 314 members of the Panamanian Defense Forces, 202 Panamanian civilians, 23 U.S. military men and three U.S. citizens.

But Clark, who was attorney general from 1965 to January 1969, said reports indicated the number of civilian casualties was much more.

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'One hospital morgue has processed over 280 dead bodies in the morgue,' said Clark, who later added that a computer printout indicated that 14,000 homeless were living in a high school converted into a shelter.

Clark stressed that the numbers he cited were undocumented.

'The thing that seemed very clear is that the count will take a long time,' Clark said.

Lead defense attorney Frank Rubino bases his dismissal request on a 1957 federal court ruling, called the Toscanino case, that says justices have the power to bar prosecution in any manner necessary to remedy abuses or to preserve respect for the law.

Dropping the charges is warranted 'as a consequence of the illegal and immoral method by which the government of the United States effectuated the defendant's arrest,' Rubino said in his motion for dismissal.

'This is the first time to my knowledge the U.S. has invaded and leveled a country to arrest one man,' Rubino told Hoeveler.

Rubino showed a 13 minute montage of television news clips showing the destruction caused by the U.S. invasion, including bloody bodies, flaming buildings and mangled cars.

Noriega, who was brought to the United States Jan. 3 after surrendering to U.S. agents following the invasion, is charged with 15 others in a 12-count federal indictment returned in February 1988.

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Noriega is charged with using his official position as the leader of Panama to foster drug trafficking between Colombia and the United States from 1981 to 1986. If convicted, Noriega would face a maximum of 145 years in prison and a $1.1 million fine.

Noriega also is named as a defendant in a three-count indictment, returned in Tampa and unsealed simultaneously with the Miami indictment, that involves smuggling 1.4 million pounds of marijuana into the United States.

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