Noriega to Appear Before His Trial Judge

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MIAMI (AP) - Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega wants U.S. officials to send him back to his home country when he finishes his drug trafficking and racketeering sentence next month, but American prosecutors are pushing for him to be extradited to France to face another trial.

Noriega is set to appear Monday before Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, the same jurist who presided over his original trial. Hoeveler will decide whether the U.S. extradition attempt is valid, although it is unclear when he will rule. A magistrate judge will separately decide whether Noriega should actually be sent to France.

Noriega, 72, is set to be released on Sept. 9 after 15 years in prison in Miami. He wants to fly immediately to Panama to fight a conviction in the slayings of two political opponents, his lawyers have said.

But French authorities want him extradited to their country, where Noriega was convicted in absentia in 1999 on money-laundering charges. He was accused of using drug profits in part to buy luxurious apartments in Paris.

His attorneys argue that Hoeveler declared Noriega a prisoner of war, a designation that they say requires he be sent home to Panama under the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. says the Geneva Conventions cannot be used to block his extradition.

U.S. forces captured Noriega after a 1989 military invasion ordered by then-President George H.W. Bush in part because of the Panamanian's links to drug traffickers. It later emerged that Noriega had been on the CIA payroll for years, assisting U.S. interests throughout Latin America, including acting as liaison to Cuban President Fidel Castro.

In 1992, Noriega was tried and convicted in the U.S. of accepting bribes to allow shipments of U.S.-bound cocaine through Panama. His 30-year sentence has been reduced for good behavior.

Panamanians, meanwhile, are split on whether Noriega should be imprisoned in their country. A poll conducted in July before the U.S. announced plans to try to extradite him to France found 47 percent of Panamanians want him imprisoned their country and 44 percent want him sent to a third country. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.