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Noriega trial promises unpredictable outcome Jury selection to start this week


Manuel Antonio Noriega has spent most of the past year and eight months in what is called the "Dictator's Suite" in the Metropolitan Correctional Center near Miami.

He lives alone in a three-room cell equipped with a paper shredder, a copying machine, a stationary bicycle, an alarm-equipped file filled with classified documents, a toilet, a television set, a bunk and a shelf for a few books, among them a Spanish-language Bible.

In his long, solitary wait for a trial, Panama's deposed dictator, who reportedly sought spiritual succor in several religions, including Buddhism, before his imprisonment, reputedly has become a born-again Christian.

Even in prison, General Noriega remains a master of the unpredictable, so it is anyone's guess what surprises could pop up when he steps out of his cell this week and into a Miami courtroom to begin a celebrated, much-delayed trial that could spill at least a few of the U.S. government's secrets.

Jury selection starts Thursday. Presiding over the trial will be federal Judge William Hoeveler, whom General Noriega once called "the one shining light through this legal nightmare."

When General Noriega re-emerges into the limelight, he is likely to be wearing his star-studded general's uniform, a privilege

granted him as a prisoner of war -- the first leader of a foreign nation ever to be tried in the United States.

The government charges that General Noriega turned Panama into a business hub for international drug traffickers, most notably Colombia's Medellin cartel. In return for his help and protection, prosecutors say, the drug traffickers paid him at least $4.6 million.

As chief of the Panama Defense Forces and as his country's self-appointed head of state, General Noriega allegedly allowed drug barons to set up cocaine-manufacturing labs in Panama, export the finished product to the United States and then ship the financial proceeds back to Panamanian banks for safe deposit.

His services purportedly included providing secure airstrips and quickie passports, as well as persuading Panama's customs officials, military and police not to interfere with what the prosecutors call "the enterprise."

"The drug traffickers didn't just use him," said Diane Cossin, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Miami. "He was the brains behind it."

If found guilty on all 12 counts, General Noriega could be sentenced to 145 years in prison and fined $1.1 million.

But the defense is expected to argue that if General Noriega did business with drug lords, it was with the knowledge and encouragement of one of his major employers, the U.S. government.

The government has admitted paying General Noriega $320,000 during his three decades as an informant for the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army, but his lawyers contend that the figure is closer to $11 million.

The defense contends that General Noriega's trial is not about drugs but about politics. In their view, the United States has used the legal system to rout an uncooperative former ally who refused to step down.

On Jan. 3, 1990, General Noriega surrendered to U.S. troops two weeks after they stormed into Panama. He was whisked to Miami in a U.S. military plane. He was booked wearing a dirty, green T-shirt and rumpled pants, looking more like a street thug than Panama's "Maximum Leader." He was jailed without the possibility of bail.

Since then, his trial has been mired in controversies and delays, leading to speculation that just as the prosecutors who wrote the 1988 indictment against him never expected him to come to trial, the Bush administration still would prefer that he didn't.

Various former confederates of General Noriega are expected to testify against him in return for reduced sentences for their own crimes.

They include cocaine smugglers, drug pilots and such cronies as Lt. Col. Luis del Cid, a top Noriega associate and co-defendant who recently pleaded guilty to negotiating drug payoffs between General Noriega and drug traffickers.

Just last week, Ricardo Bilonik, a former Panamanian ambassador, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and became the seventh of General Noriega's co-defendants to agree to testify against him. In exchange, prosecutors said they woulddrop two drug-trafficking charges against Bilonik and recommended a 10-year sentence instead of the maximum 50-year term.

Also expected to appear on the witness stand is Amjad Awan, once General Noriega's personal banker at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, who was convicted recently of money-laundering.

The trial also might unearth new information on General Noriega's role in the Iran-contra scandal at a time when the issue has returned to haunt the Bush administration.

And Awan's testimony could add a few more details to the growing scandal surrounding BCCI, which furnished General Noriega with a Visa credit card and a virtually unlimited credit line.

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