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French court approves Noriega extradition
French court approves extradition of ex-Panamanian dictator Noriega to his homeland
By The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) ' A French court has approved former dictator Manuel Noriega's extradition to Panama, allowing him to return home for the first time since he was forced out in a U.S. invasion more than 20 years ago.

The appeals court announced the decision in Paris on Wednesday after months of legal procedures.

Panama sought Noriega's extradition so that he can serve out sentences given after he was convicted in absentia there for homicide, corruption and embezzlement.

Noriega has spent the last two decades behind bars in Florida and France.

France's prime minister, Francois Fillon, now needs to sign an administrative decree allowing for Noriega to be transferred, possibly within days.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

PARIS (AP) ' Behind bars for more than two decades in the United States and France, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega may soon be headed home ' likely to another prison cell.

A Paris appeals court rules Wednesday whether to grant an extradition request from Panama so the elderly ex-military strongman can serve out sentences given after he was convicted in absentia there, in the latest phase of his complex legal odyssey.

Friends and foes alike have feared that Noriega might die in a French prison ' notably Panamanians who fought against human rights abuses during his 1983-1989 regime. They want to see him face justice at home.

Noriega, a one-time CIA asset who lorded over Panama from 1983 to 1989, turned into an embarrassment for the U.S. after he sidled up to Colombia's Medellin drug cartel and turned to crime.

In the waning days of the Cold War, Noriega was seen by U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration as a pivotal ally against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. But he eventually fell out with Washington.

In late 1989, U.S. President George H.W. Bush ordered an invasion to oust Noriega. The dictator holed up in the Vatican Embassy, and U.S. forces blasted with incessant loud rock music until he surrendered in January 1990.

Taken to Miami, he was accused of helping the Medellin cartel ship tons of cocaine into the United States. Jurors convicted him in 1992 on eight of 10 charges, and he was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

After his U.S. sentence ended, he remained in legal limbo in Miami from 2007 to 2010, when France issued a last-minute request for his extradition to face money laundering charges. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years behind bars.

Panama wants Noriega returned to serve two prison terms of 20 years handed down after convictions in absentia for embezzlement, corruption and murder.

He is accused of murdering opponents including Moises Giroldi, a military commander who led a failed rebellion two months before the U.S. invasion, and Hugo Spadafora, whose decapitated body was found on the border with Costa Rica in 1985.

The extradition was rendered especially complex because the United States, as the country that authorized Noriega's initial transfer to France, had to give its consent for him to be shipped onward to Panama.

France has refused to extradite him on the murder charges ' forcing Panama to revise its request, and putting Noriega again in a legal no-man's-land while the three countries iron out the niceties of a transfer.

In the meantime, Noriega has grown feeble and was expected to arrive for Wednesday's proceedings in a wheelchair, his lawyer said. He's now in his 70s, though his exact age isn't clear.

"(This is) the last hearing ' unless another extradition request is pulled out of a hat," said defense lawyer Yves Leberquier.

If, as expected, the court signs off on the extradition order, France's prime minister, Francois Fillon, would need to sign an administrative decree allowing for Noriega to be transferred ' possibly within days.

Panama's government and judicial authorities have been closely monitoring the French proceedings.

Noriega "is going to go to jail when he arrives in Panama," President Ricardo Martinelli has said, while adding "the law does say that a citizen who is over 70 years old can be granted the privilege of house arrest."

"That's not necessarily going to happen ' but it's something the judge has to decide," Martinelli told reporters last week.

Noriega has three Panamanian convictions in absentia hanging over his head, which carry combined sentences of 60 years in prison on charges of homicide, corruption and embezzlement.


Eds: Juan Zamorano contributed from Panama City

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