By Neville Spencer
Twenty months after his "arrest" on drug trafficking charges, Manuel Noriega's trial is under way in Miami, but it is much more than Noriega's future that is at stake.
The defence case largely revolves around the allegation that the CIA and other US government agencies condoned the activities for which he is being tried.
Evidence exists to prove that the US, at the very least, turned a blind eye to his activities. Authorities were told of his connection with a boatload of marijuana seized in 1971, yet it was decided not to proceed with an indictment at that time.
According to former CIA chief Admiral Stansfield Turner, Noriega was receiving $110,000 per year from the CIA up until 1977, in spite of suspicion of his involvement in trafficking. Turner also said that Noriega was put back on the payroll in 1981 at the insistence of Vice President George Bush.
Although the media reported that files of drug contacts were found in Noriega's home after the invasion of Panama, the documentary evidence against him actually consists of a single letter from a convicted marijuana trafficker. Fifty kg of "cocaine", also found in his home, proved to be nothing more than an ingredient for making tamales, a popular Panamanian dish.
Prosecution evidence consists mostly of the testimonies of convicted or accused traffickers. The fact that the US government has paid out $1.5 million in "fees" to six witnesses casts further doubt over their testimony.
Light sentences are being offered to witnesses for testifying against Noriega, including to co-defendants. Carlos Lehder of the Medellin cartel, currently serving a sentence of life plus 135 years, has made a deal to appear as a witness in exchange for what must be a very substantial reduction to his sentence.
On September 4, co-defendant Daniel Miranda pleaded guilty to a charge of transporting $800,000 of drug proceeds. He received in exchange the prosecutor's recommendation of a light sentence. The Washington Post reported that he might serve less than one month.
What has most marred the credibility of the trial is the use of laws protecting "national security". As the case of the defence is based on evidence, which Noriega claims to posses, of the complicity of US government agencies, much of the most important evidence will not be heard, even by the jury.
The prosecution regularly stops testimony by appealing to the Classified Intelligence Act. To discuss sensitive matters, the judge, prosecutors and defence lawyers huddle together while white noise is played to prevent anyone else in the courtroom overhearing.
Although we will probably never know what Noriega's evidence is, other that it may well be more than bluff. Long before the invasion of Panama, José Blandon, a former Panamanian intelligence chief and consul in New York, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Noriega did indeed possess evidence of US complicity. A note from Noriega to his embassy in Washington also confirmed this.
The fact that Noriega has been brought to trial at all breaks a number of international laws and treaties, including the Panama Canal Treaty. Although Panama's constitution prohibits the extradition of its citizens, the legal argument used was that the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics, which Panama signed, does allow it in certain cases. No extradition proceedings, however, took place either before or after the invasion.
The extent to which the government will pull strings to ensure a guilty verdict is difficult to predict. The illegal taping of Noriega's telephone calls, the sweetheart plea-bargaining, the apparent bribery and the censorship of evidence have already caused considerable embarrassment to the government.