Noriega To Be Released in September

by Kevin Jon Heller

Here’s something I didn’t realize: Manuel Noriega will be released from prison in September, after serving a little more than half of his 30-year sentence:

Noriega has been in U.S. custody since surrendering 17 years ago during the U.S. invasion of Panama.

He is currently serving a 30-year sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering.

“He has now come to the point where he has served what is known as his mandatory release time, which means the government must release him from custody on September 9th this year,” said Frank Rubino, Noriega’s attorney.

Rubino says good behavior was one of the factors considered for the release. He says his client plans return to Panama once out of U.S. custody.

“He has only been to the United States three times in his whole life and has no desire to stay here,” he said. “Like anyone else, he wants to return to his home.”

Noriega’s legal troubles, however, will be far from over after his release. In 1995, A Panamanian court convicted him in absentia of murdering an Army major who tried to overthrow him and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Rubino says his client plans to defend himself in that case.

“When he returns to Panama, he will, through his lawyers, make a motion to reopen that trial so he can participate in it,” he said.

Noriega has been in prison for 17 years? Time flies…

4 Responses

  1. If my memory is correct, I seem to recall a newspaper article at the time of Noriega’s capture indicating that U.S. Immigration authorities “paroled” him into the US pursuant to a provision of the Immigration &Nationality Act for the purpose of the criminal prosecution. (Immigration parole is the legal provision used to permit the physical entry of an alien into the US without the need for a visa, among other things.) Typically, once the criminal sentence is completed, immigration authorities take custody of the alien from prison authorities for the purpose of commencing removal proceedings. I wonder if Noriega will end up in the custody of Immigration &Customs Enforcement?

    And wasn’t Noriega also accorded POW status?

  2. The District Court did rule that Noriega is a POW. For this reason, he has received special treatment at the prison in Miami. For example, he receives regular ICRC visits/inpections (I participated in one of these several years ago). He has his own “section” of the prison, and is permitted to wear his uniform if and when he chooses to do so.

    Having said that, Noriega is nothing of the man he was back in 1989. When I served in Panama in the mid-80’s, I met him once or twice during field training exercises. He was the epitome of the uniformed “strongman”. The experience of seeing him in prison was quite a shock for me – he was a shadow compared to my recollection from earlier encounters.

    What I think is particularly interesting is where he will end up. His family still lives in Panama, and he undoubtedly would want to return there. Whether he would be subjected to a prosecution there remains to be seen. Remember that during the second Coup attempt against him he allegedly personally executed Major Giroldi, the PDF officer who led the effort to take him into custody.

  3. A bit more. According to the Miami Herald, although Noriega has been convicted in abstentia in Panama for his pre-capture conduct, he still wants to return. I don’t think it is too far fetched that he will be able to work out some deal with the Panamanian authorities to be able to do so. The article says he will “deal” with the charges. I wonder what that “deal” will look like?

  4. My memory may be failing me here – I wrote Human Rights Watch’s amicus brief on the question of Noriega’s status in the trial, having covered the last few years of his rule in Panama and the Panama war for Human Rights Watch. If I recall correctly, and I may not, the judge in the trial, Judge Hoeveler, said that Noriega was a POW but that he, the judge, had no authority to enforce such a status because the Geneva Conventions did not provide a right of private action. I could be mis-recalling this, however. The US government wound up taking the position that it would treat Noriega as if he were a POW but not admit that it was required to do so as a matter of law, and on that ground the legal issue was not pursued further.

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