Eleventh Circuit Hands Down Latest--and Maybe Last--Chapter in the Noriega Saga

Panamanian strongman and dictator General Manuel Noriega was trained in the 1960s at the School of the Americas, while the School was at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone, as well as at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Noriega is believed to have worked with the CIA from the late 1950s, being paid by the agency at times, and to have entered into a contractual relationship with the agency in 1967. Noriega joined the Panamanian National Guard and supported dictator General Omar Torrijos (father of the current, democratically-elected President of Panama, Martin Torrijos), under whom Noriega was alleged to have been involved in “disappearances” of political opponents. When Colonel Florencio Flores Aguilar, who became dictator of Panama at Torrijos’ death in a plane accident (which was later alleged to have been orchestrated by Noriega), was ousted in a coup by Colonel Ruben Dario Paredes in 1982, Noriega became Commander of the National Guard, renamed the Panamanian Defense Forces.

Noriega proceeded to consolidate almost absolute power in Panama, promoting himself to general in 1983, and became involved with the Medellin Drug Cartel based in Colombia. Noriega has claimed that in 1988, U.S. State Department officials met with him and offered him $2 million to go into exile in Spain. The U.S. government has maintained that Noriega was a double-agent, giving information not only to the U.S. but also to communist Cuba, as well as selling weapons to Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua in the 1970s, thus leading to his State Department nickname of “the Rent-a-Colonel.” Noriega permitted U.S. aid to Contra rebels in Nicaragua to pass through Panama. However, he refused demands by U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North for Noriega to provide military assistance to the Contras.

In 1989, Noriega was indicted on drug charges in the Southern District of Florida, and Panamanian President Arturo Delvalle issued a decree relieving Noriega of his duties. Noriega ignored the decree, and instead forced Delvalle to flee the country. The National Assembly declared Noriega “Chief Executive Officer” of Panama, although he had been de facto leader of the country for several years. Noriega is suspected to have been complicit in the murder of political opponent Hugo Spadfora by death squads. Noriega brutally suppressed protests against his rule through the use of army and paramilitary forces called “Dignity Battalions,” and rounded up, imprisoned and killed political opponents.

Noriega attempted to rig the May 1989 election for president in favor of his candidate Carlos Duque of the Partido Revolucionario Democrático by having fake tally sheets distributed to election precincts, however his opponents managed to release results showing Guillermo Endara of the Authentic Panameñista Party beating Duque by 3 to 1. Noriega proceeded to void the election claiming “foreign interference,” and was denounced by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who monitored the election as an observer. Noriega’s Dignity Battalions stopped Endara the day following the election and severely beat him.

The U.S. recognized Endara as President and imposed economic sanctions on Panama, while U.S. armed forces had freedom of movement throughout the country under the Panama Canal Treaty of 1980. On December 15, 1989, the National Assembly stated that a “state of war” existed between the U.S. and Panama, and on December 20, 1989, the U.S. military at the direction of President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama in Operation Just Cause. Navy SEALs destroyed Noriega’s plane in Operation Nifty Package, and Noriega hid himself in the Vatican’s embassy in Panama where, after being bombarded by hard rock music by U.S. forces for several days, Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990.

Noriega was convicted on RICO, drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering counts in the Southern District of Florida in April of 1992, and was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment. Commentators criticized the prosecution’s frequent reworking of its case, and its use of deals and payments to drug dealers in order to testify against Noriega. Noriega has been an inmate at in the Federal Correctional Institute in Miami, Florida. His sentence was reduced to 30 years in 1999, and was further reduced to 17 years for good behavior. Noriega’s sentence technically ended on September 9, 2007, although he remains incarcerate. Noriega has reportedly become a born-again Christian.

Yesterday, the Eleventh Circuit handed down the latest, and perhaps final, chapter in the Noriega saga, Noriega v. Pastrana, NO.08-11021 D.C. DOC, 2009 WL 929960, (11th Cir., Apr. 08, 2009). After his capture, Noriega had been designated as a prisoner of war under the Third Geneva Convention.  At the request of the French government, the United States filed a complaint on July 17, 2007, to extradite Noriega to France, and Noriega filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, alleging that extradition would violate his rights under the Third Geneva Convention. The district court held that Section 2255 only applied to challenges to a sentence, and also that the government had satisfied its obligations under the Third Geneva Convention, and denied the petition. Noriega filed two more habeas petitions, which were also denied by the court. An extradition hearing was held on August 28, 2007, and a Certificate of Extraditability was issued on August 29, 2007.


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