MIAMI — Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega on Thursday appeared in the same federal courtroom in which he had been convicted of drug charges in 1992 in the hope of stopping his extradition to France to face money laundering charges.
No such luck.
Federal Magistrate Judge William Turnoff set an Aug. 28 hearing on his extradition - days before his scheduled release on parole from a federal prison in Southwest Miami-Dade.
Working on behalf of the French government, The U.S. Attorney's Office sought to extradite Noriega to France to serve 10 years for his conviction in absentia for money laundering.
French authorities claim Noriega funneled about $3.15 million to a bank account in France in the late 1980s and used part of the cash to buy three pricey apartments in Paris, according to prosecutors.
Noriega prefers to be returned to Panama, where authorities there want him to serve multiple prison terms for, among other things, the murders of critic Hugo Spadafora and 10 leaders of a failed 1989 coup. His lawyers said France could seek his extradition from the Panamanian government.
Turnoff disagreed. He said he can review the French extradition request while the original presiding federal judge in the case, William Hoeveler, considers Noriega's separate bid to return to Panama.
On Thursday, Noriega, 72, dressed in a black overcoat and brown shirt, said very little during the hearing.
Interest, especially among members of the media, was so high in the ex-general's case that court officials were forced to hold the hearing in the historic central courtroom of the federal courthouse to accommodate a large crowd of onlookers.
They all got to observe a slightly stooped Noriega walk slowly into court and embrace his original defense lawyers, Frank Rubino and Jon May.
Noriega, who was toppled by a U.S. invasion in late 1989, was automatically eligible for parole after serving about two-thirds of his 30-year federal sentence.
His lawyers argue that Noriega's extradition to France would violate his rights as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention. It was Hoeveler himself who, in 1992, declared the ex-general a POW.
Hoeveler plans to hold a hearing on Aug. 10 on Noriega's separate request to return to Panama.
"The court has determined that sufficient time remains for a full consideration of these important issues prior to defendant's release from custody, and that a hearing on defendant's petition will assist the court in this matter," Hoeveler wrote in an order this week.
Prosecutors wasted no time in responding, saying Noriega's separate challenge was not "ripe."
"The extradition proceeding should continue, and the magistrate should be allowed to determine whether the defendant is extraditable," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael "Pat" Sullivan, who was a member of the original prosecution team.
Sullivan said the U.S. government "has fully complied" with Hoeveler's initial ruling that Noriega is a prisoner of war and has treated him accordingly under the Geneva Convention's mandates. But he added: "The defendant can be extradited to France in accordance with all of the United States' treaty obligations - including its obligations under the Geneva Conventions."