Manuel Noriega, ex-Panamanian dictator, sent from Miami to France

Manuel Noriega flown to France to face money-laundering charges

Manuel Noriega, the former drug-running dictator of Panama ousted by a US invasion in 1989, has been flown from America to Paris where he will face trial on fresh money laundering charges.

Noriega's extradition brings to an end his 21-year spell in a Miami jail, where he held a unique status. He was the first head of a foreign country to be convicted of crimes in the US courts, and he became America's only official prisoner of war.

By dint of his special standing he was given unique privileges, including two rooms in his cell, dubbed the "presidential suite", a television, telephone and equipment for exercising.

He was convicted in Miami in 1992 of multiple charges including drug trafficking, and sentenced to 40 years. That was reduced for good behaviour and he completed his sentence in 2007. Since then inmate 38699-079, as he was numbered in prison, has dedicated himself to fighting extradition to France, where he has been accused of laundering up to $3m of drug money through property purchases in Paris.

His lawyers argued that as a prisoner of war he could not be sent to a third country. They cited the Geneva conventions, claiming that under them he had to be returned to his own country, Panama.

Noriega consistently aruged he wanted to be returned to his native country, despite having been convicted in absentia of even greater crimes there and facing a much longer possible sentence.

But in January the US supreme court refused to hear his appeal against extradition, clearing the way for the secretary of state Hillary Clinton to give the go-ahead to last night's Air France flight. Two supreme court judges, the conservatives Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, gave a minority ruling that said they would have allowed the appeal.

Noriega, 76, began public life in the Panamanian military and rose to become intelligence chief. He was initially seen as a staunch ally of the US with close links to the CIA. But his corrupt and brutal rule, beginning in 1983, combined with his growing involvement in drug smuggling, became an embarrassment for Washington. In late 1989 the elder George Bush ordered 24,000 US troops to invade Panama.

Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City in a siege that was to become legendary. The US army adopted the novel technique of trying to force him out into the open by blasting the compound with ear-splitting rock music.

Last night the extradition was confirmed by a spokesman for the French justice ministry, Guillaume Didier. French prison guards are understood to have escorted the former dictator on board his Air France flight, which arrived in France this morning. "France was notified of this extradition a fortnight ago," Didier told Agence France Presse.

He is likely to be presented to a French judge today when it will be decided whether or not he remains in custody. He has already been tried once in his absence in France, but it was later decided that he should face a new trial.

If found guilty on this occasion, he faces a further jail term of up to 10 years. (4.27.2010, Ed Pilkington in New York and Lizzy Davies in Paris)

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