MIAMI - Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega can be extradited to France once he completes his U.S. prison sentence for a 1992 drug trafficking conviction, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Noriega, 73, is due to be released from a Florida prison on Sept. 9.
He wanted U.S. officials to send him back to his home country, but France wants him to face charges of laundering more than $3 million in drug profits through French banks and purchases that included luxurious apartments in Paris. Another federal judge last week rejected a claim that Noriega should be returned to Panama because he was held in the U.S. as a prisoner of war.
Noriega's lawyer Frank Rubino said he would likely appeal, but added that his client had not made the final decision on how to proceed.
"I can assure this court and everyone else: You haven't heard the end of this," Rubino said.
Noriega was tried and convicted in the United States after he was captured by U.S. troops who invaded Panama in 1989 in part to oust him from power.
U.S. Magistrate Judge William Turnoff's ruling Tuesday was technically a recommendation to the State Department for Noriega's extradition to France, which has assured the U.S. through diplomatic channels that Noriega will be held there as a POW once extradited.a
Turnoff's decision was based in part on a key ruling last week by Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler. Hoeveler originally declared Noriega a POW, but he ruled Friday that the designation does not make Noriega immune from extradition to foreign countries for other crimes.
Noriega contends that under the Geneva Conventions, a POW must be returned home after hostilities have ceased _ in his case, more than 20 years ago. But federal prosecutors say POWs that have pending criminal charges must face them, or be sent to a third country that has a legitimate extradition treaty with the U.S., such as France.
"The rights asserted by General Noriega simply do not exist under the Geneva Conventions," Turnoff said Tuesday.
Rubino raised questions of France's true intentions, citing a recent Panamanian news article in which a French official was quoted as saying Noriega would be treated as "a common criminal" rather than a POW. That would violate his rights under the Geneva Conventions, Rubino said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Cronin said the Bush administration was satisfied after receiving a confidential communique from France about honoring the POW designation.
"The United States is not running away from its obligations under the Geneva Conventions," Cronin said.
Noriega was convicted in France on the money laundering charges while he was jailed in the U.S., but the French government agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited, according to court documents.
The former dictator also was convicted in absentia in Panama on charges of embezzlement, corruption and murdering political opponents and sentenced to 60 years, but he could wind up serving only a fraction of that time or even get house arrest under Panamanian law.
Panama has filed an extradition request but has not actively pursued it, Hoeveler said in his ruling.
The Panamanian government had no immediate response to the judge's decision Tuesday.
Panamanian Party Rep. Jose Blandon, one of the Noriega regime's fiercest opponents, said the ruling "for us who were victims, is without question disappointing."
"We hope that at some point he (Noriega) returns and pays," Blandon said.
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