Page last updated at 01:10 GMT, Tuesday, 27 April 2010 02:10 UK

Q&A: Noriega extradition

Manuel Noriega (4 October 1989)
Manuel Noriega was once a top US ally in Central America

The United States has extradited former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega to France, where he is wanted for money laundering.

Noriega was arrested by US troops after they invaded Panama in 1989 and charged with drug trafficking. He was kept in prison after completing a 17-year sentence in 2007 when he appealed against the extradition request.

Noriega, now 76, was convicted in absentia in France in 1999 for using $3m in proceeds from the drug trade to buy property there. However, France agreed to grant him a new trial if he was extradited.

In early 2010, the US Supreme Court dismissed two appeals by his lawyers, thereby upholding an earlier ruling by a federal appeals court that the US government could send him to France without violating his rights as a prisoner of war (POW) under the Geneva Conventions.

Noriega is also wanted in Panama, where he has been sentenced to 20 years in jail in absentia for murdering two political opponents.

Who is Manuel Noriega?

Noriega was never the official president of Panama, but he became the de facto ruler of the country in 1983 as head of the Panama Defence Forces.

He was one of Washington's top allies in Latin America, and had close ties to the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush, and to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which he aided in its covert war against communists in Central America.

Why did ties with the US deteriorate?

By the late 1980s, relations had become extremely tense between Noriega and the US government. A US Congressional committee report concluded that Noriega was a major player in drug-trafficking in the region.

The US authorities also accused him of violating human rights and rigging elections in 1989.

Washington initially imposed sanctions, a move that was followed by a tense stand-off between US forces stationed in the Panama Canal zone and Noriega's troops.

By mid-December, the situation had worsened so much that President Bush launched an invasion, ostensibly because a US marine had been killed in Panama City, although the invasion had been months in the planning.

So why did Noriega end up in a US jail?

When the US invaded, Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican diplomatic mission in Panama City. American troops played deafening pop and heavy metal music day and night outside the building to flush him out.

Finally on 3 January 1990, Noriega surrendered and was flown out of the country to the US.

He had prisoner-of-war (POW) status because he was captured during a military invasion.

Noriega was found guilty of drug-trafficking, racketeering and money-laundering charges. He was sentenced to 40 years, which was reduced to 30 years in 1999.

He was released early on 9 September 2007 for "good behaviour" after serving 17 years. However, a few weeks before, the US government filed papers backing an extradition request by France. He remained in prison pending an appeal.

Why is he wanted by France?

France has requested his extradition for allegedly using $3m in illegal drug profits to buy luxury apartments in Paris. He was convicted in his absence in 1999 and given a 10-year sentence. France has said its courts will retry him.

What were the legal arguments surrounding his extradition?

Noriega's lawyers argued that he should not have been extradited to a third country such as France because, as a prisoner of war of the US, the Geneva Conventions required him to be returned to Panama.

In April 2009, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Georgia, ruled that both the US and France were parties of the Geneva Conventions, and that nothing "implies that a contracting party cannot abide by a valid extradition treaty and extradite a prisoner of war to another contracting party simply because the person is a prisoner of war".

In January 2010, the US Supreme Court turned away Noriega's appeal without comment, clearing the way for him to be extradited. It again rejected a petition by his lawyers the following month.

Two days after the last refusal by the Supreme Court, the US District Court in Miami lifted the stay that had been blocking the extradition.

On 26 April, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed a "surrender warrant" for him because all judicial challenges had been resolved.

What about Panama's claims on him?

Noriega was convicted in his absence in 1995 and sentenced to 20 years for the murder of former political opponents. But changes to Panamanian law since then mean people over the age of 70 are put under house arrest rather than serving time in prison.

Various Panamanian administrations have sought extradition since 1991.

So what happens to him now?

French prison officials took custody of Noriega once he boarded an Air France jet at Miami airport on 26 April, officials said.

A spokesman for the French justice ministry, Guillaume Didier, said that when Noriega arrived in Paris, he would go before prosecutors to be notified of the arrest warrant against him.

A judge would then decide whether to place him under temporary detention until his case was referred to a criminal court, he added.

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