Former dictator faces court over laundered cash claims

Manuel Noriega took the stand at his money laundering trial in France yesterday, and the former Panamanian dictator appeared confused about the most basic of biographical information: his age.

Noriega's lawyers also complained about dirty, dilapidated conditions in the prison where their client is being held and the way he was extradited from the United States in April.

The former military man, who spent 20 years in US custody for drug trafficking, could be jailed for ten years if he is convicted.

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Noriega, who listened to the proceedings through a translator without showing emotion, had his hair slicked back and wore a dark suit and red tie. His three daughters - dressed to the nines in sleek outfits and heels - were there to support him.

The former dictator started his brief testimony with a stumble, when he was asked about discrepancies in his date of birth on different legal documents.

His shoulders trembled as he stood. Asked to state his birth date, Noriega initially said 11 February, 1936, then immediately corrected himself, saying he was born in 1934. He spoke through a translator.

The Paris trial is a new legal battle for the ageing strong man, deposed after a 1989 US invasion.

After serving 20 years in a Florida prison for drug racketeering and money laundering, he was extradited to Paris in April to face accusations that he tried to hide cocaine profits in French banks.

Since then, Noriega has been held at the La Sante prison in southern Paris.

His lawyers argued yesterday that the prison is unfit for him. They also argued that his extradition from the US should be annulled because France is not treating him as a prisoner of war.

Much of yesterday's proceedings were devoted to a detailed summary of the allegations against Noriega.

Judge Agnes Quantin detailed the complex financial manipulations allegedly used to feed accounts in France held by Noriega, his wife and daughters, as well as various Panamanian diplomats in Europe.

She also read summaries of testimony against Noriega, some of it provided to French authorities by their American counterparts, giving details about Noriega's alleged dealings with the powerful Medellin cartel in Colombia.

Panama is also seeking Noriega's extradition, bringing hope to his countrymen who want to see him face justice at home for alleged torture and killings of opponents.

France already convicted Noriega and his wife in absentia in 1999 for laundering several million dollars in cocaine profits through three major French banks.

France agreed to give him a new trial if he was extradited.

Noriega has maintained that he fought against drug trafficking and that the money came from other sources, including payments from the CIA. He had been a CIA asset before he joined forces with drug traffickers.