MIAMI -- Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, standing erect in his full military uniform, made a dramatic plea for fairness yesterday, telling a federal court that the U.S. government "has done as much as possible to deprive me of a fair trial."
The deposed Panamanian dictator told U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler that "the government of the United States does not wish that I defend myself" as preparations bogged down for his drug-trafficking trial.
Uttering his first words in public since being forcibly brought to the United States in January at the conclusion of the U.S. invasion of Panama, General Noriega protested that he was being prevented from retaining his private lawyers of choice because his overseas bank accounts had been frozen by federal officials.
He added that "psychological warfare" was being waged against him, because his wife and daughter have been denied visas to enter the United States to visit him in prison, where he has been kept for 11 months.
Speaking forcefully in Spanish with an interpreter, the former strongman with four general's stars on his shoulders pictured himself as an underdog. He told the judge, who listened with rapt attention:
"The battle I am facing is very similar to the invasion my country suffered. . . . And this battle is unfair also. I find myself at the mercy of a totally unfair system."
Last winter, the Justice Department asked European nations where General Noriega had deposited his personal funds to freeze 27 identifiable accounts containing $20 million, on grounds that those funds represented illicit proceeds from drug dealing. But after complaints by Frank A. Rubino, the general's Miami-based defense counsel, Judge Hoeveler ordered the department in June to try to unfreeze about $4 million to $6 million so General Noriega could pay Mr. Rubino and three other lawyers who are defending him.
The lawyers said that they had been working without compensation but that General Noriega had enough funds so that he did not wish to be represented by a public defender or a court-appointed lawyer.
When five months of effort produced no results, Judge Hoeveler called Justice Department officials into his court for an accounting last week. They said that foreign countries had been unwilling to free up any of General Noriega's funds.
Judge Hoeveler said that if the lawyers would not continue their work, he had no choice but to appoint lawyers who would be willing to work for about $75 an hour, the legal limit, which is about one-fourth of a private defense attorney's fee.
General Noriega said the inability of U.S. officials to unfreeze his bank accounts was "a sham."
He charged that his defense efforts were being impeded, not only by a shortage of funds but also by improper government taping of his jail house phone calls with his lawyers, because "this case implicates the highest levels of the U.S. government, including the White House."
Judge Hoeveler assured the general that other "top-flight" defense attorneys would serve him at government expense if a way could not be found to pay higher fees to his present defense team. The judge said qualified defense attorneys recently had contacted him about the case.
[Meanwhile, the FBI said it would not analyze the contents of a box of materials recovered from the Atlanta hotel room of a Cable News Network reporter. William Hinshaw, head of the FBI's Atlanta bureau, said yesterday that his agency agreed to seal the box. He said he would not examine its contents further until ordered to do so, the Associated Press said.
[There was no word yesterday on whether the box's contents had anything to do with CNN's legal battle over its attempt to air audio tapes of government wiretaps of General Noriega, the Associated Press said.]