Noriega enters the dock in Paris

June 29, 2010 at 4:42 PM
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PARIS, June 29 (UPI) -- Panama's aging former leader, Manuel Noriega, has gone on trial in France for money laundering after being extradited from the United States in April.

Noriega, 76, faces 10 years in jail if found guilty in what is his second French trial. He was convicted in absentia in 1999 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

But in 1999 Noriega was already in prison in the United States after a trial in April 1992 in Miami. He was convicted on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering.

His Miami prison sentence ended in 2007 but he was held by U.S. authorities pending the outcome of a French extradition request.

That request eventually was granted on the basis that he would be retried in France.

Noriega continually denies laundering around $2.8 million in the late 1980s from Colombia's Medellin cocaine cartel through the now-defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

The Luxembourg-registered bank, set up in 1972 by Pakistani financier Agha Hasan Abedi, was long-suspected by U.S. Customs and British Officials of having connections with many drugs cartels around the world. It was closed in 1992 on fraud charges but lawsuits with creditors persisted for a decade.

Noriega's money deposited with BCCI allegedly was used by his wife, Felicidad, also convicted in absentia, and a shell company to buy three luxury Parisian apartments, since seized by French authorities.

The charges are "imaginary," said Noriega, whose three daughters attended the trial's first day.

His lawyers argued that he shouldn't be in court in the first place because, as a former head of state, he is immune from prosecution.

The trial in Paris marks another turn in the circuitous route the former Panamanian strongman has taken from being a trusted U.S military and political ally to prison inmate in a foreign country.

That route may have one final twist of fate if Noriega isn't convicted in France. French authorities may send him back to Panama where is he wanted for allegedly torturing and killing political opponents.

Noriega was a military man from his early career. He had intelligence and counterintelligence training at the School of the Americas at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone in 1967, as well as a course in psychological operations at Fort Bragg, N.C. He was commissioned into the Panama National Guard in 1967 and promoted to lieutenant in 1968.

His rise to power started in the early 1980s when he rose from chief of Panama police to being a top military commander against a background of Marxist-inspired guerrillas and U.S.-backed militaries. He was also said to be a CIA informant.

But his fall from grace started in a Florida courtroom in 1988 where he was accused of helping Colombian drug-traffickers smuggle tons of cocaine into the United States.

The U.S. military sent an invasion force to Panama the following year, capturing Noriega and taking him to stand trial in Florida.

While the Florida court found him guilty, Noriega said he found God, thanks to prison visits by born-again Christians.

The Paris trial is expected to end this week.

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