The Miami Herald
Sat, Aug. 25, 2007

Noriega extradition hearing can proceed


A federal judge on Friday denied former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's request to halt his extradition to France on money-laundering charges related to his drug conviction in Miami.

U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler rejected the former general's argument that because the judge had designated him a prisoner of war after his sentencing in 1992, he was entitled to return to Panama under the Geneva Conventions.

Hoeveler's decision sets the stage for Noriega's extradition hearing before another judge in Miami on Tuesday.

In his 12-page ruling, Hoeveler, who presided over Noriega's original trial, said that when he declared him a POW 15 years ago, he did so ``in the context of defendant's concerns about the care he would receive while in custody.''

''This court never intended for the proclamation of defendant as a POW to shield him from all future prosecutions for serious crimes he is alleged to have committed,'' Hoeveler wrote. ``That being said, even the most vile offender is entitled to the same protections as those owed to a law-abiding soldier once they have been declared a POW. It appears that the extradition proceedings should proceed uninterrupted.''

Noriega, 72, who has served about 18 years in federal prison in Southwest Miami-Dade, is set to be released next month because of automatic parole and good behavior.

The ex-general, captured during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, was convicted of receiving payoffs in exchange for letting Colombian drug lords use his country as a conduit for tons of cocaine bound for the United States.

It was Hoeveler who declared Noriega a prisoner of war. His attorneys have cited that status as the legal basis for stopping his extradition to France and requiring his return to Panama.

He wants to return to Panama when his prison term ends Sept. 9, even though he could face more prison time on pending murder and extortion charges there.

But the U.S. government wants him extradited to France. Noriega faces a 10-year sentence on money-laundering charges stemming from his alleged funneling of $3.15 million to a bank account in France. He is accused of using some of that money to buy three luxury apartments in Paris. He was convicted in absentia in 1999.

At a hearing last week before Hoeveler, both sides sparred over interpretations of Geneva Convention rules pertaining to POW transfers and repatriation.

Defense attorney Jon May argued that under the Geneva Convention, Noriega has ``an absolute right to be repatriated.''

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Cronin countered that Noriega was premature in challenging his extradition. He said that Magistrate Judge William Turnoff should hear all issues in the case Tuesday. A ruling by Hoeveler, Cronin argued, would ''prolong and complicate'' the extradition.