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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 September 2007, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Is Noriega too hot to handle?
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

Manuel Noriega
Noriega's future may lie in either France or Panama
A long spell in a US jail has not dented former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega's capacity to provoke controversy.

Days before his scheduled release from his prison cell in Miami, his lawyers are embroiled in a battle over where he is to be sent.

Until Wednesday, it looked as if Noriega was about to exchange his Miami prison cell for a new life in France. Not, however, a life of luxury in exile - but the possibility of another jail term.

The man who became known as the "strongman of Panama" has been in prison since being convicted in 1992 of drug trafficking charges. He was scheduled to be released early for "good behaviour" and had set his sights on returning home.

But in July, US Justice Department lawyers filed an extradition request on behalf of France, where he is wanted for allegedly using some $3m (1.5m) illegal drug profits to buy property. A US judge ruled last month that he be extradited to France but Noriega's lawyers have now secured a temporary block to that order.

In Panama City and elsewhere, there is talk of back-room deals between governments to keep him out of the country.

Noriega's US lawyer Frank Rubino believes that a deal has been done between the US, France and Panama to prevent Noriega's return.

Conviction

Noriega has already been convicted in absentia for the offence, which carries a 10-year sentence, but France - which awarded him the Legion d'Honneur in 1987 - says he will be retried.

PRISONER OF WAR
Noriega was classified as a prisoner of war because of the US invasion
Lawyers argued that Geneva Conventions require Noriega be returned home
The French government has said it will recognise him as a POW but Noriega's lawyers dispute this
POW status entitled Noriega to better prison conditions
At home, he faces far more serious convictions for the murder of former political foes. But it is questionable whether the 73-year-old would ever spend time in prison as recent changes in Panamanian law mean that because of his age, Noriega could be put under house arrest instead.

"The government of Panama, which has the absolute right to him, has obviously got the French Government to do this on their behalf," Mr Rubino told the BBC News website. "Panama clearly does not want him back."

He said that both the US and Panama were afraid the former military ruler would "re-engage in politics" in the country.

His extradition would close a chapter in US history that saw President George Bush senior launch the largest military invasion in history to target a single man. The UN says about 500 civilians were killed in the process; others say the death toll ran into the thousands.

Friend then foe

And yet this was the man who throughout the 1970s and 80s was one of Washington's top allies in Latin America. He had close ties to Presidents Reagan and Bush senior and to the CIA, which he aided in its covert war against communists in Central America.

But the US ties unravelled when he become a liability. In 1988, the Bush administration was forced to take notice of a US Congressional committee report which concluded that Noriega was playing a major role in drug trafficking in the region.

Manuel Noriega
Noriega was once key to the CIA's battle against communism
The White House went on to accuse the Panamanian leader of election-rigging and violating human rights.

Noriega's final days in Panama were truly bizarre. He sought refuge from US troops at the Vatican embassy in Panama City.

In an attempt to flush him out, US troops subjected the general day and night to deafening pop music and heavy metal offerings. Finally, he gave himself up and was whisked to Miami for trial.

It is now almost two decades since he was in power. Some argue that Noriega is still a political liability. Others, however, argue that he is now an irrelevance.

Mixed feelings

According to a recent opinion poll in Panama, 64.7% of people believe a deal was struck to keep him out of the country.

Manuel Noriega
Noriega was taken to the US after finally giving himself up
France is remaining quiet while the legal process is ongoing, but the Panamanian authorities deny any secret deals took place.

Various Panamanian governments have requested the extradition of Noriega since 1991, but the current government has apparently raised no strong objections to the French request.

In Panama, there are mixed feelings about Noriega's possible return and some relief that he may go to France.

Panamanian academic Miguel Angel Bernal says that Noriega could prove an irritant to the political elite. Former allies hold influential positions in the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party and other government organisations.

"There are many influential people who owe some kind of political or economic debt to Noriega. They would prefer him out of the way," Mr Bernal, an opposition leader who clashed with Noriega's government, told the BBC News website.

"Then there are those who fear he could reveal secrets about them."

"Neutralisation"

According to a poll of 1,218 people conducted for La Prensa newspaper in July, 47% said they wanted him imprisoned in Panama and 44% said they want him sent to a third country.

According to Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, the US would like to keep him away from Panama because they see him as a "potentially destabilising factor", despite having little support in the country.

"What the US basically wants to do is continue the neutralisation of Noriega," he said.

"US policy has been to try to neutralise these people - be it Aristide in Haiti and Noriega in Panama - by putting them elsewhere."

He argues that there is perception that Noriega could potentially become a provocative figure by appealing to a sense of nationalism to attack the perceived shortcomings of the US.

Noriega's lawyer Mr Rubino says US fears that "The General" has plans to re-engage in politics are "unfounded".

But Mr Birns believes that because of his personality, Noriega would be incapable of "absenting himself from the political scene".

"There are a lot of Panamanians for whom he could rapidly become a hero and one thing is for certain, Noriega is one of the smartest political players," he said.

"Most of the politicians in Panama are no match for him."


SEE ALSO
Q&A: Manuel Noriega extradition
07 Sep 07 |  Americas
Panama 'wants Noriega extradited'
20 Jul 07 |  Americas
Noriega fails to stop extradition
25 Aug 07 |  Americas

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