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Ex-Panama Dictator Noriega Goes To Trial In France

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega embarks on a new legal battle Monday when he goes to trial in Paris, accused of using French bank accounts to launder kickbacks from a Colombian cocaine cartel in the late 1980s.

After finishing up a 20-year sentence in the United States for drug racketeering and money laundering, Noriega was extradited to Paris in late April to face accusations that he tried to hide drug money in France.

Since then, Noriega has been held at the La Sante prison in southern Paris. His lawyers have unsuccessfully pushed for his release, arguing that the prison is too dirty and dilapidated for him and taking their complaints to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

If convicted in France, 72-year-old Noriega - deposed after a 1989 U.S. invasion - 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 alleged torture and killings of opponents.

France already convicted Noriega and his wife in absentia in 1999 for laundering several million dollars in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three posh Paris apartments on the Left Bank.

France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited. Noriega's wife, Felicidad Sieiro de Noriega, is living in Panama and faces no charges there.

The in-absentia conviction, obtained by The Associated Press, says Noriega "knew that (the money) came directly or indirectly from drug trafficking." It said he helped Colombia's Medellin drug cartel by authorizing the transport of cocaine through Panama en route to the United States.

Noriega has maintained that he fought against drug trafficking and that the money came from other sources, including payments from the CIA. He had been considered a valued CIA asset for years before he joined forces with drug traffickers and was implicated in the death of a political opponent.

After his 1992 drug conviction by a Miami federal judge, Noriega was declared a prisoner of war. In Miami, Noriega had separate quarters in prison and the right to wear his military uniform and insignia. France is not treating him as a POW, to the objections of his legal team.

His lawyers have complained that he lost perks such as the right to wear his military insignia, and they say La Sante is not equipped to care for an aging man with health problems. The former dictator has been partially paralyzed since suffering a mild stroke four years ago, his lawyers say.

The French indictment says Noriega was born in 1938, although his legal team says he was born four years earlier. As a youth, he claimed to be older than he was to win a scholarship to a military academy in Peru and his exact age remains in dispute.

This program aired on June 28, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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