, PARIS, Jul 7 – A French court convicted Panama\’s former dictator Manuel Noriega of laundering drug money Wednesday and handed down a seven-year sentence, jailing him again after two decades in a US prison.
The 76-year-old general stood hunched over and showed no emotion as he heard the verdict through his Spanish interpreter in the Paris courtroom, dressed in a black suit and white shirt.
The court ordered the seizure of 2.3 million euros (2.8 million dollars) in frozen French bank accounts held in Noriega\’s name, in a judgement that his lawyers slammed as "extremely severe."
Noriega had denied taking payments from Colombian drug lords in the 1980s when he took the stand last week and said he was the victim of a setup orchestrated by his one-time ally, the United States.
The ex-leader, who ruled Panama from 1983 to 1989, testified that Washington had turned against him in the 1980s when he refused to allow Panama to become a staging ground for operations against leftists across Central America.
Noriega is "downhearted and surprised by this decision which he can hardly comprehend," his lawyer Yves Leberquier told reporters.
Co-defence lawyer Olivier Metzner said the verdict was part of a process of "political score-settling… which pleases the American authorities."
The pock-marked general known as "Pineapple Face" was deposed by US troops that invaded Panama in December 1989.
The one-time strongman was a key asset for the US Central Intelligence Agency but fell out with Washington when he turned his strategically important country into a drugs hub.
In her ruling, presiding judge Agnes Quantin said there was sufficient proof to conclude that funds funnelled by Noriega to French bank accounts in the 1980s came from drug trafficking.
"The money transfers were done for no other logical financial reason than to blur the source and ensure their opacity," she wrote.
Prosecutors had sought the maximum 10-year jail sentence for Noriega, who was extradited from the United States to France in April.
Leberquier described the seven-year jail term as "extremely severe" and said the defence would take 10 days to decide on an appeal.
Noriega\’s lawyers had argued that a long jail term would amount to a life sentence for the general, who suffers from partial paralysis and high blood pressure.
Panama has asked France to hand him over to face trial in his home country for human rights violations, but Paris has said that will not happen before the case in France has run its course.
A French court had sentenced Noriega to 10 years in jail when he was tried in absentia in 1999 on charges of laundering the equivalent of 2.3 million euros from the Medellin drug cartel through French banks.
The drug money transited through the now-defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International in the late 1980s and was used by Noriega\’s wife and a shell company to buy three luxury apartments in Paris.
The ex-military leader was given a re-trial as part of the terms for his extradition from the United States on April 26.
In seeking an acquittal, Noriega\’s lawyers had argued that the charges against him hinged on unreliable testimony from ex-drug traffickers who were paid and given protection by US authorities.
His wife Felicidad, who was not on trial, remained in Panama but his three daughters sat in the Paris courtroom, listening attentively and taking notes during the entire proceedings.