The trial of ex-Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega will be long and complicated because of the novelty of prosecuting a former head of state and likely defense requests for secret government documents, says a Duke University professor.
``This will not be a simple, straight forward drug defense,' said Paul Haagan, an associate law professor with experience in international law. ``This is going to be a difficult prosecution. There are a lot of issues to be raised.'Last Thursday, Noriega gave some indication of the complexities that will follow in the U.S. District Court in Miami as he refused to enter a plea to charges that he accepted $4.5 million to make his nation a stopover in the international cocaine trade. The judge entered an innocent plea for him.
Haagan said there is little precedent for trying former heads of state in federal court.
``I'm not aware of any similar case,' he said.
On the other hand, ``I don't know of any legal reasons why the federal statute under which Noriega was indicted wouldn't apply. Being a head of state doesn't get him off.'
High government officials have been prosecuted by tribunals outside their nation, such as the Nuremberg trials for war crimes after World War II, Haagan said.
``There are other things that are awkward,' he added, such as the manner in which Noriega entered the United States. Noriega took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama for 10 days before turning himself over to the United States.
``It could be argued that he voluntarily submitted in turning himself over, but I think that would be a pretty strained argument,' Haagan said.
The archbishop of Panama said Noriega surrendered to the United States when it became obvious he had lost all support from the Panamanians.
However, Haagan said the conditions that landed Noriega in court would probably not undercut the legality of the court proceedings, at least by U.S. judicial standards.
``There is a precedent for Americans kidnapping and bringing people to trial,' he said.
Crucial to that question is the stance of the new Panamanian government.
``The party with the right to object to the seizure would be Panama, and I'm not sure they would,' Haagan said. ``If they did, I'm not sure the United States would recognize it.'
The usual protections under the Fourth Amendment against unlawful search and seizure will not apply to Noriega because he is not a U.S. citizen and the seizures occurred in Panama, Haagan said.
Noriega's defense also raises basic questions such as who will pay for his defense counsel. Once Noriega's counsel is determined, the defense can question the court's competence to hear the case, Haagan said.
Finding an unbiased jury in South Florida also will be difficult, Haagan said.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!