Noriega's trial begins--while some question whether it should occur at all

September 06, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

MIAMI — MIAMI-- After months of delays and legal melodrama, jury selection began yesterday in the trial of deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega -- an unprecedented proceeding expected to explore the methods and morality of U.S. intelligence operations abroad.

The drug-trafficking trial represents the first time a foreign leader has been seized by invading U.S. forces and tried as a criminal in civilian court.

General Noriega is facing 10 separate charges of conspiracy, racketeering and international drug-trafficking based on allegations that he turned his country into a haven for Colombian cocaine dealers to smuggle their drugs into the United States.

The former dictator, who fled invading U.S. military forces in December 1989 but was eventually captured at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City, is also charged with allowing traffickers to process their drugs in Panama and launder their cash proceeds through his country's banks.

Many legal experts believe that the general would never have been returned to the United States for trial if doing so had not satisfied U.S. foreign policy objectives.

"Noriega comes to us as a political case," said University of Miami law professor D. Marvin Jones, an expert on constitutional law. "The reason

he's here on trial is not because he's a drug dealer, but because we had certain interests in Panama which we could not achieve. What we really wanted was to depose a political figure who had become a thorn in the side of American foreign policy."

Seizing a foreign leader by invading his country and putting him on trial in a U.S. court for civilian crimes is "unprecedented . . . and should not be going on," Mr. Jones said.

Prosecutors will attempt to show that the former military strongman, in return, received substantial cash profits from the Colombians. The government's 1988 indictment of General Noriega estimated his take at $4.6 million, but a parade of prosecution witnesses -- many recruited only in the last year -- will offer cumulative testimony that the payoffs far exceeded that amount.

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