Noriega Surrenders, Lands in U.S. to Face Drug Charges
MIAMI (AP) _ Fallen Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega arrived in the United States early today to face drug trafficking charges after surrendering to U.S. troops outside his Vatican Embassy sanctuary in Panama City.
Noriega, who defied two U.S. presidents until he was toppled by the Dec. 20 American invasion, was flown to Homestead Air Force Base, about 25 miles south of Miami, to face a 1988 drug indictment.
The deposed military leader was scheduled to appear this afternoon for arraignment before U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler in the federal courthouse in downtown Miami, but Noriega will refuse to enter a plea, defense attorney Frank Rubino said this morning.
″We cannot submit to the jurisdiction of this court. General Noriega will stand mute at the arraignment,″ Rubino said as he and co-counsel Steven Kollin waited in the courthouse to see their client for the first time since his surrender.
Rubino’s comment indicated the defense might begin with the theory argued earlier that Noriega is immune from prosecution in the United States as a former head of state.
Noriega’s attorney Steven Kollin earlier had discussed plans for an innocent plea and the initial stages of a defense.
″We’re going to request certain pretrial discovery requests including certain sensitive documents, and these sensitive documents will get to the truth of the matter,″ Kollin said. ″I believe he will be found not guilty if we can find a jury of 12 people after this unparalleled pretrial publicity.″
The archbishop of Panama, Marcos McGrath, said today that Noriega decided to give up after realizing that even his long-time supporters had turned against him and he was cornered.
Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, in television interviews from Washington, explained the surrender by saying on CBS: ″I think he saw the handwriting on the wall.″ He said prosecutors have a strong case against Noriega, adding on NBC, ″If we can make it better, we won’t hesitate to do so.″
Security officials speaking on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press that Noriega had been detained at the courthouse.
Noriega, who left Panama in his general’s uniform, was wearing a khaki open-neck shirt and dark trousers as he awaited the proceedings, a federal worker said.
The U.S. Marshals Service has holding cells in the courthouse basement and a private elevator. Each courtroom in the 10-story building has an adjoining holding cell so prisoners can make a court appearance without being seen or having any contact with the public en route.
Noriega was greeted at the Florida base by Panamanian exiles, Cuban- Americans and others cheering his downfall. Some of the celebrants moved their party before dawn to the courthouse where authorities briefly sealed off adjacent streets.
Streets were reopened as the demonstration broke up, but about 150 to 200 people, many from the news media, remained outside this morning.
Panamanians celebrated in the streets as he left the country he has dominated since 1983 as military leader, and Panamanian exiles cheered in the cool night air outside the air base where a C-130 carrying him landed at 2:45 a.m.
″I wanted my children to see the reason people in Panama have been suffering,″ said 33-year-old Manuel Arana, who brought his two young daughters to Homestead. ″To me, this is as important as the Berlin Wall coming down.″
Maj. Bob Barca of the Air Force said Noriega departed the base at 2:51 a.m., but he would not disclose where Noriega was taken.
Word of Noriega’s departure from Panama late Wednesday triggered celebrations across Panama City. People banged pots and pans and kissed U.S. soldiers. Fireworks lighted the sky around the Vatican mission. Youngsters raced up and down streets waving Panamanian and U.S. flags.
″We are relieved to be rid of this criminal,″ Panamanian President Guillermo Endara said in a statement broadcast on national television. ″The people feel a sense of peace knowing that the monster is leaving our land.″
In Washington, President Bush said Noriega, who had taken refuge in the embassy on Christmas Eve, turned himself over to U.S. authorities voluntarily and ″with the full knowledge″ of the Panamanian government.
″It seems that the Vatican officials basically stressed to Noriega that his only viable strategy was to give himself up,″ said a U.S. official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Bush said in his nationwide address that he is committed to giving Noriega a fair trial.
The United States agreed to three conditions set by Noriega: that he be allowed to make some phone calls, that his decision be kept secret until the actual time of his arrest, and that he be permitted to wear his uniform, administration officials said.
Although Gen. Maxwell Thurman, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Panama, said there were ″no deals here,″ administration officials said the United States had also promised Noriega he would not be prosecuted under a new federal law allowing the death penalty for ″drug kingpins.″
The assurances were relayed to Noriega through Vatican officials. The United States did not directly deal with Noriega, the sources said.
Thurman said Noriega ″looked vigorous, looked confident″ as he walked out of the compound with the papal nuncio, Monsignor Sebastian Laboa.
Thurman said Noriega’s surrender ″completes the fourth of our four objectives″ in invading Panama. The others, he said, were to protect American lives, safeguard the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties and restore democracy to Panama.
According to authorities, about 290 Panamanian soldiers, 300 civilians, 23 U.S. troops and three American civilians died in the invasion.
If convicted, Noriega faces up to 145 years in prison and fined $1.1 million. He faces similar federal charges in Tampa.
A roadblock to prosecuting Noriega is his right to demand classified information stemming from his past cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency, legal experts have said.
Noriega reportedly worked closely with the CIA and the Pentagon while he served as the head of Panama’s military intelligence service and after he became commander in chief.
But the fact he was on U.S. soil brought hope to Panamanians who had lived under Noriega’s regime.
Among those waiting outside Homestead’s main gates early today was Adela Giroldi, whose husband, Moises, was executed after leading a failed coup against Noriega last October.
″This is a great day,″ said Mrs. Giroldi. ″I never thought I’d see Noriega being brought to justice in this way. ... This is a day all Panamanians celebrate.″