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French prosecutors seek 10-year term for Noriega

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PARIS — The prosecutor in a French money laundering case against former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega asked Wednesday that he be sentenced to 10 years in prison, but his defense lawyers countered that the charges were part of a political plot against him.

Prosecutor Michel Maes insisted that millions of dollars that passed through Noriega's French accounts during the late 1980s were kickbacks from the powerful Medellin cocaine cartel. He also asked for the seizure of euro2 million ($2.5 million) that has long been frozen in the accounts.

A verdict is expected July 7.

Noriega spent 20 years in U.S. custody for drug trafficking and was extradited to France in April.

A French court had convicted the former strongman and his wife in absentia in 1999 for laundering several million dollars in cocaine profits through three major French banks and using drug cash to invest in three luxurious Paris apartments on the Left Bank. He was granted a retrial.

Noriega's defense team asked the three-judge panel for an acquittal.

His lawyers urged the court not to be swayed by the general's reputation as a crook in cahoots with drug dealers and to look at the political context surrounding Noriega's relationship with U.S. officials and his fall from power in the United States' 1989 invasion of his country.

They questioned the impartiality of his U.S. conviction, suggesting it was part of a strategy to keep Noriega quiet after his relationship with the CIA – for which he had long been a valued operative – soured.

The French proceedings, they contended, were "the continuation of this grand masquerade."

Attorney Olivier Metzner suggested the U.S. decision to extradite Noriega to France, though his native Panama was also seeking his extradition on more serious charges, was politically motivated.

Fellow defense lawyer Yves Leberquier lashed out at the prosecutor's request for a 10-year sentence, saying it amounted to "a life sentence, in reality." The 76-year-old former general's age and frail health mean he would certainly die behind bars if convicted, Leberquier said.

After delivering hours of animated testimony a day earlier, Noriega remained impassive throughout Wednesday's proceedings, held in a sweltering chamber of Paris' main courthouse.

Noriega, dressed not in his trademark fatigues but in an oversized dark suit and red tie, rose to address the judges at the end of the trial.

"I wanted to thank you for allowing me to explain some of the parts of my defense for the first time," he said, adding he was praying God would give them the "wisdom" to set him free.

In Tuesday's testimony, Noriega had painted himself as a foe of drug traffickers, explaining that after rising through the ranks to the head of Panamanian Armed Forces, his zealous fight against drug traffic had won him praise from the U.S. and others.

He said his woes began after he refused to cooperate with a U.S. plot to oust the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Noriega was much less loquacious when probed by presiding judge Agnes Quantin about the murky financial transactions in the late '80s that saw millions of dollars transit through accounts belonging to the general and members of his family.

Noriega insisted his financial adviser was behind the movement of the funds and was short on details about specific transactions.

Thays Noriega, the defendant's daughter, told reporters that she and her family are "hoping that this will finally be over. It's been so long and we, the family, are pretty drained, and his health is very weak and we're worried about him." She and her two sisters attended the trial, and the family members often huddled together, talking over the barrier of the defendant's box, during breaks.