Noriega goes on trial on money-laundering charges

Manuel Noriega's money-laundering trial opened in France yesterday, with the former Panamanian dictator's lawyers complaining about the prison where he is being held and the way he was extradited from the US.

General Noriega, who spent 20 years in US custody for drug trafficking, could be put back in jail for 10 years if he is convicted.

He started his testimony with a stumble when he was asked about discrepancies in his date of birth on different legal documents. Asked to state his birth date, General Noriega, speaking through a translator, initially said 11 February 1936, then immediately corrected himself, saying he was born in 1934.

The former leader was deposed after a 1989 US invasion. After serving 20 years in a Florida prison for drug racketeering and money laundering, he was extradited to Paris in April to face accusations that he tried to hide cocaine profits in French banks. Since then, General Noriega has been held at the La Santé prison in southern Paris.

His lawyers argued yesterday that the prison is too dirty and dilapidated for him. They also argued that his extradition should be annulled because France is not treating him as a prisoner of war. In Miami, General Noriega had the right to wear his military uniform and insignia. If convicted, General Noriega could face another 10 years in prison. Panama is also seeking his extradition, bringing hope to his countrymen who want to see the former military strongman face justice at home for the alleged torture and killings of opponents. France already convicted General Noriega and his wife in absentia in 1999 for laundering several million dollars in cocaine profits.

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