Deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, serving a 30-year prison sentence for drug smuggling, fails in his third bid for early release.
BY JAY WEAVER
The Miami federal judge who sentenced deposed dictator Manuel Noriega to 30 years for drug smuggling recommended his early release from prison -- but the unusual gesture failed to help the former Panamanian leader's latest bid for freedom.
U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler described Noriega as a ''good candidate for parole'' in a recent letter to the U.S. Parole Commission -- the first time in 27 years he has done so for a defendant convicted in his court.
But March 4, a parole commissioner rejected the former general's third request in four years for early release. Noriega remains in a private apartment-like cell complex at the Federal Correctional Institute in Southwest Miami-Dade.
Hoeveler, long regarded as one of South Florida's top federal judges, cited Noriega's ''advancing age'' -- 70 -- and his ''tempered'' view toward the ex-strongman. That contrasted sharply with the Bush administration's stand to keep him behind bars.
''Among other things, which I take seriously myself, he has converted to the Baptist faith,'' Hoeveler wrote on Feb. 20 to Edward F. Reilly Jr., chairman of the commission. ``It has been reported to me that while incarcerated, General Noriega has frequently received the pastor who baptized him.''
Hoeveler wrote that Noriega's time in prison ``should be adequate for his rehabilitation and release.''
The judge, appointed by President Carter, declined to comment Wednesday about the letter.
Hoeveler -- who called Noriega a ''prisoner of war'' at his 1992 sentencing hearing -- sent the letter after the parole examiner heard the pros and cons of Noriega's request at a Feb. 18 hearing. At the hearing, the ex-dictator proclaimed himself "America's best friend.''
With good behavior and other prison credits, Noriega has to serve at least two-thirds of his 30-year sentence, which began in January 1990 shortly after U.S. troops invaded Panama. Without early parole, he would have to wait until at least 2007. His attorney, Frank Rubino, said he plans to appeal last week's ruling.
On Wednesday, Rubino said the judge's letter suggests that if Hoeveler had the power to reduce Noriega's sentence today, he would.
Noriega has spoken well of Hoeveler in the past. Before the 1991-92 trial began, Noriega said in open court: "The one shining light through this legal nightmare has been your honor. You have acted as honest and fair as anyone could hope for.''
Rubino said the U.S. attorney's office in Miami and the Department of Justice in Washington continue to politicize Noriega's case.
Noriega was arrested in late 1989 on orders from President George Bush.
''I argued [at the parole commission hearing] that this was not the business of the United States,'' Rubino said.
"[As a country], we're saying, `Don't release him because we, America, don't want him in Panamanian politics.'
"Who are we to say that? He doesn't want to do that anyway -- he wants sit back in a rocking chair on his porch with his grandchildren.''
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Gregorie, a member of the prosecutorial team that brought narcotics-trafficking charges against Noriega in 1988, said the deposed dictator still faces criminal charges in France, Costa Rica and Panama.
The prosecutor said when Noriega is released and deported, he could become a disruptive force in his homeland's politics.
''I assume when he finishes his sentence, he will be sent back to Panama because that's where we took him from,'' Gregorie said.
"His going back there will cause a certain amount of disruption.''
Gregorie added that he had no problem with Hoeveler writing a letter to the parole commission because of his longtime respect for the judge.
Tom Hutchison, executive director of the parole commission, said federal judges don't typically write recommendations for early parole.
''It's not eyebrow-raising unusual,'' he said. "It's just unusual statistically.''