Prosecutors concede they are a long way from bringing Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega to trial on drug charges despite a federal judge's decision to uphold the prosecution of the Panamanian leader.
But they called his hold on power tenuous, and expressed hope he could eventually be overthrown and extradited."He seized power by the sword, and there is no reason to believe he might not lose power by the sword," said U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen. "We'll try to get Noriega here."
U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler on Wednesday rejected a defense challenge to charges that Noriega and 15 others allowed smugglers to use Panama as a weigh station for U.S.-bound cocaine.
Noriega allegedly accepted a $4.6 million bribe from Colombia's Medellin Cartel to protect the drug traffickers, allow them to process cocaine and launder their profits, according to the February indictment. A separate federal grand jury indictment in Tampa charged Noriega with three marijuana importation counts.
Defense attorney Neal Sonnett argued that the United States has recognized Noriega as de facto head of state in Panama, therefore conferring immunity upon him.
"We have this material, this poison, being sent to us," the judge said. "To countenance sovereign immunity under these particular circumstances would be a serious error."
Hoeveler took note of a U.S. State Department's affidavit saying the government continues to recognize ousted President Eric Arturo Delvalle, not Noriega, as legal ruler of Panama.
The judge added that he himself had come to a similar conclusion in a civil case disputing control of Panama's national airline facilities here.
Sonnett shrugged off the defeat, and indicated he may not even have standing to appeal the decision.
"Motions to dismiss are rarely granted," Sonnett said. "I certainly recognize the difficult burden of proof we had."
The judge refused to rule on two other issues raised by Noriega's defense. Sonnett had argued Noriega was being selectively prosecuted to force him into concessions on control of the Panama Canal.