Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who was ousted by a U.S. invasion in 1989 and jailed in the United States, arrived in France today to face money laundering charges after being extradited from the U.S. Tuesday night.
Escorted by French prison officials, the 76-year-old former general arrived on an Air France flight from Miami early this morning at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. This afternoon a judge ordered that he be jailed pending trial, which could take place within two months.
"We did not see anybody in particular leave our aircraft," a passenger on the flight told reporters at the Paris airport. "But we saw a lot of policemen around the plane" she said.
Before he boarded the Air France flight at Miami airport, local television showed helicopter pictures of a physically weak Noriega being helped out of a black pickup, walking with difficulty. Noriega suffered a mild stroke four years ago.
This morning, Noriega appeared behind closed doors at Paris' main courthouse, where French prosecutors read him an arrest warrant, the first step before any other judicial action can be taken against him in France.
French authorities say Noriega laundered $7 million in drug proceeds from the Medellin Cartel in Colombia by purchasing luxury apartments in Paris.
In 1999, while he was in prison in the U.S., Noriega was convicted in absentia by a French court. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail and fined close to $15 million. But France agreed to give him a new trail if he was extradited.
Manuel Noriega, Panama's strongman in the 1980s and a one-time CIA informant during the Cold War, was ousted as Panama's leader by U.S. troops in December 1989. Noriega was captured and brought to Miami where he was later sentenced to 40 years in jail for drug trafficking and related charges.
His sentence was later reduced for good behavior and after spending 17 years behind bars, Noriega was expected to regain freedom in 2007. But he remained in jail pending the extradition request made by French prosecutors.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed a so-called surrender warrant for Noriega after a federal judge in Miami lifted a stay blocking the extradition last month.
Noriega's French lawyers are seeking his immediate release, saying his detention and transfer are unlawful.
"If the rules of law are applied, there should not be a trial in France," Yves Leberquier, one of Noriega's French lawyers, told RTL radio today. The French lawyers argue that it is illegal to try a former head of state who should have immunity from prosecution.
Noriega's lawyers also say the charges against him are too old to be tried under French law. And they say Noriega is considered a prisoner of war, a status French jails aren't ready to accommodate.
Noriega was declared a P.O.W. after his 1992 drug conviction by a Miami federal judge. In Miami, Noriega had separate quarters in prison, the right to wear his military uniform and insignia, access to a television and monitoring by international rights groups.
Panama also has an outstanding request for the former dictator's extradition. He was convicted in Panama in absentia and sentenced to 54 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, corruption and ordering the murder of opponents.
In 1987, Noriega was made a commander in France's prestigious Legion of Honor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.