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Council on Hemispheric Affairs

The General In His Labyrinth: Who Remembers Manuel Noriega?

-Although the Geneva Convention calls for the General’s return to Panama, practical considerations would seem to preclude this. -Noriega exists in a legal limbo; French desire to extradite him appears to be legally doubtful, Paris enjoys support from Washington and Panama.

Brian Thompson

Although Manuel Noriega may have left Panama twenty years ago, the General's legacy still casts a long shadow on the face of Panamanian politics. Long stripped of his rank and privileged status, he still holds the dubious distinction of being the only prisoner of war currently in American custody. While Noriega's sentence may have ended in late 2007, the former strongman is still behind bars in Miami as hearings regarding his extradition to France drag on.

Despite his original 30-year sentence being reduced to 17 years for good behavior, a series of moves by his legal team and countermoves by the Federal Government have guaranteed that the former general will not be setting foot in his home country any time soon. While Noriega's American sentence may be up, France has asked for the General's extradition to stand trial on charges of money laundering. France was a favorite holiday spot for the General, and he bought three apartments there. The apartments were allegedly purchased with laundered profits, which led to his 1999 conviction in absentia. However, the General is also wanted in Panama for murder and other human rights abuses. Noriega's fall from power was partly brought about after allegations of his involvement in the murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora began to surface. Spadafora's body was found in September 1985 in the Costa Rican jungle just over the border with Panama. A vociferous opponent of the Noriega regime, Spadafora threatened to make public the General's close ties with the Medellin drug cartel. Spadafora was last witnessed just days before his death in Paso Canoas, the border town between Panama and Costa Rica, where he was followed by sapos, or spies of the government. It is alleged that he was kidnapped by Panamanian security forces and taken to a secret location, where he was tortured and then beheaded.

In addition to the Spadafora murder, Noriega is also accused of planning the assassination of Serafin Mitrotti. A businessman with extensive ties in the anti-Noriega opposition, Mitrotti was found dead on a Panamanian beach in 1986. His body showed clear signs of torture, but the official cause of death was listed as suicide. Additionally some of his personal effects, most notably a diamond ring, were found in the possession of a close associate of Noriega's. These murders demonstrated that a culture of impunity reigned in Panama, and that, from behind the scenes, Noriega was calling the shots. Therefore, it is understandable that some adamantly insist that the general be tried in Panama for crimes committed during his reign.

Extradition: A Matter of Practicality
Despite the overwhelming mountain of evidence that Noriega was the mastermind behind these and possibly other murders, trying the former General for these crimes does not appear to be a priority for the American justice system. Although Noriega's sentence technically ended in September 2007, the former strongman still finds himself occupying the same prison cell he has lived in for the past two decades. Noriega was cleared for extradition to France in late 2007 but appeals stretched until January of the following year, when a Florida judge shot down the General's last attempt at blocking his impending transfer. During the proceedings, Noriega's attorneys argued that his prisoner-of-war status would not be respected by France, which would treat him like a common criminal.

A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry insisted in 2007 that Noriega would "benefit from the same rights as a prisoner of war, but we will not give him the status of prisoner of war because, obviously, he is not a war prisoner." This statement is somewhat confusing and contradictory and is indicative of the legal twilight zone the General finds himself in. While the French position may sound like a classic case of legal doublespeak, there are powerful and compelling reasons for not releasing the General. American officials fear that if released, Noriega would retire to Panama, where the mention of his name still elicits strong reactions. Many current Panamanian officials served under the Noriega regime, and any return to Panama would invariably be accompanied by an upheaval in the country's often indefensible political system. During the late 1980s, Noriega organized thousands of Panama's poor into ‘Dignity Battalions.' These militias were given weapons and tasked with national defense as well as the suppression of domestic dissent. Members of the battalions were fanatically loyal to Noriega and there is no reason to think that twenty years on these old divisions would not resurface. Any return by the former dictator to Panama could potentially lead to societal strife, tearing apart the nation's fragile democratic framework.

Due to the disruption and emotional impact that a return would surely have that the U.S. currently finds itself carrying out a series of complex legal maneuvers to prevent Noriega from ever again setting foot in Panama. While Panamanian courts may have a strong claim to prosecuting the General, Noriega's infamy in his home country has the potential to destabilize that nation. Unlike most of its regional neighbors, Panama never suffered nationwide, long-term instability and only garnered international headlines during the last four years of Noriega's rule. As an international trading hub, Panama is one of the leading economies in Central America and enjoys relative societal stability when compared to its regional neighbors. Dozens of ships navigate the Canal every day carrying valuable cargo to markets around the world, and the city of Colon is home to one of the largest free trade zones in the world. While exceedingly corrupt, Panama's democratic institutions have not suffered major upheaval since Noriega's departure, and neither Panama nor Washington wishes to upset this delicate balance. The well-being of the global economy is dependent on a stable Panama free of turmoil and Noriega's return would imperil Panamanian governance as well as international markets.

Panama's economic importance and Noriega's ability to potentially cause chaos by his mere physical presence in the country places the United States in a quandary: On the one hand, there appears to be a general consensus in Washington that the General must never return to his native land. However, not all of the actions to keep him out of Panama may be in keeping with the Geneva Convention and its sections concerning treatment of prisoners of war (POW). Noriega is technically a prisoner of war and, in accordance with his status, is entitled to certain privileges. Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are to be returned to their countries of origin upon cessation of hostilities. However, since Noriega is no ordinary prisoner of war, his extradition to France does not necessarily follow the conventional norms for treatment of POWs. It becomes obvious that the classification of the general as a POW was a necessity in order to justify his capture and subsequent sentencing. There was no precedent for arresting and imprisoning a national leader, and the U.S. was forced to improvise a legal framework which would legitimize Noriega's detainment. By granting Noriega POW status, the United States was able to justify deposing and imprisoning a foreign de facto head of state. Although no precedent existed in American history for this curious involvement, the language in the Geneva Convention's section concerning prisoners of war appears, at least in a cursory manner, to justify Noriega's sentencing. However, some legal experts claim that not all is well that ends well when it comes to the strategy used against Noriega.

What the Convention Says
The Geneva Convention states that in Article 84 that a POW can only be tried by a military court unless "the existing laws of the Detaining Power expressly permit the civil courts to try a member of the armed forces of the Detaining Power in respect of the particular offense alleged to have been committed by the prisoner of war." If an American general were accused of money laundering, racketeering and drug trafficking in the United States, they would face civilian criminal charges as well as be discharged from their respective armed forces so, on the face of it, Noriega's conviction by a Miami court in 1992 would probably pass muster with regards to the Geneva Convention. If Noriega were a normal POW, then his conviction and imprisonment would appear to be well within the boundaries of international law.

The French claim to the General once again highlights the legal no-man's land in which Noriega finds himself. As a POW, Noriega cannot be extradited to another country. The Geneva Convention states in Article 119 that, if criminal charges are pending against a prisoner, then that prisoner can be retained until the end of such proceedings. Noriega's sentence ended in late 2007 and, were the Geneva Convention to be interpreted literally, the United States would be compelled to return Noriega to Panama. Once in Panama, Noriega would be a civilian stripped of his rank and protected status, and this would open him up to criminal prosecution by that country's government.

Panamanian authorities have requested on several occasions that the general be extradited to his home country to stand trial on a number of criminal charges. The main accusations include the firing squad executions of nine military officers in 1989. The soldiers had led an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Noriega and were sentenced to a firing squad as a result. Although many Panamanians would like to see the general jailed for the murders and abuses that he committed during his kleptocratic tenure, Panamanian officials probably realize that Noriega's return would dredge up the ghosts of a past that modern Panama, with its reclaimed Canal and shiny new office buildings, would prefer to forget.

Not Legal...But Necessary?
At times there exists a marked discrepancy between what is legal and what is necessary. Under some interpretations of international law, Noriega's detention and subsequent extradition to another country could potentially be construed as illegal. Although a cursory reading of the Geneva Convention may appear to justify the General's detention, we must remember that the Convention was meant to be applied to prisoners captured in the regular course of war. The entire point of the 1989 invasion of Panama was to depose and detain Manuel Noriega. When viewed in this light, the American armed forces did not capture Noriega within the context of a larger war but were instead serving an international arrest warrant. During his rule General Noriega maintained an iron grip on Panama, and it is doubtful that any civilian authority would have ever found the courage to detain and sentence the dictator on criminal charges.

Practical considerations may dictate that the General be kept out of Panama, despite the fact that legal grounds for an extradition to France are somewhat shaky. Some may even view his imprisonment in France as one way to exact justice for the abuses committed during his tenure. However, there also exists a need to carry out the law and exhibit consistency, even in the face of such a disturbing character as Manuel Noriega. The Geneva Convention states that POWs must be returned to their country of origin. In this case, that country is Panama, where the General faces criminal charges. As the principal venue for Noriega's abuse, Panama possesses a moral claim to the General, and should be the nation that next adjudicates him. However, a strong argument can be made that the General's return would prove destructive to the fabric of Panamanian national unity, and it might be prudent to subordinate legality to pragmatism.

In an ideal world, General Noriega would stand trial in Panama for crimes committed in Panama against Panamanian citizens. However, a trial in the General's home country does not appear to be feasible or desirable by any of the parties involved. The American government is not seriously contemplating such a move, and it is unlikely that the Panamanian government will press the issue further, as many Panamanian officials are not anxious to see the general back in the country under any guise. Too many current Panamanian officials maintained relations with the Noriega regime, and any return by the General would cause some of those old tensions to resurface, further destabilizing Panamanian society.

On July 7, Noriega's attorneys asked that the General's case be brought before the Supreme Court in an effort to stave off looming extradition. However, the General may be out of options. American policy appears to consist of keeping the former leader out of Panama by any means necessary, even if those means are not always in keeping with international law. The extradition of a prisoner of war to a country other than his homeland is not a move that is covered in the Geneva Convention, and it simply highlights the degree of, at times excessive power which the United States continues to exert over the future of Manuel Antonio Noriega.

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This analysis was prepared by Research Associate Brian Thompson

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