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The U.S. Parole Commission has rejected without comment former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s bid for early parole from his 30-year prison sentence. “We’ll appeal it, for sure,” says Miami lawyer Frank Rubino, Noriega’s longtime defense attorney. But the decision, announced last week, means there’s virtually no chance that the former general, now 70, will be freed before his mandatory release date in 2007 under sentencing rules in effect at the time of his offenses. To be released at that time, Noriega would have to continue his good behavior behind bars. Parole Commission Chief of Staff Tom Hutchinson in Chevy Chase, Md., says U.S. Department of Justice rules prohibited him from discussing how the decision to deny early parole was reached. Incarcerated in Miami since his capture by U.S. invasion forces in December 1989, Noriega previously has tried and failed to secure an early release. This time, though, he had the support of Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, the Miami judge who presided over the general’s narcotics trafficking trial. In April 1992, Hoeveler gave Noriega a 30-year term after a jury convicted him of racketeering, drug trafficking, and money laundering. But in a letter last month to U.S. Parole Commission Chairman Edward Reilly Jr., Hoeveler urged the release of Panama’s one-time “maximum leader” as a “good candidate for parole.” Hoeveler wrote on Feb. 20 that Noriega has “no thoughts” now of a return to politics. Last month, at Noriega’s parole hearing inside the Federal Correctional Institution in southern Miami-Dade County, the Justice Department took the opposite view. Prosecutor Richard Gregorie, a senior litigation counsel at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, told a parole examiner that Noriega’s return could destabilize Panama, which is scheduled to conduct a presidential election later this year. The parole examiner who conducted the hearing recommended that the former dictator not be released. A second parole examiner subsequently reached the same conclusion. Their recommendations were adopted by one of the three parole commissioners, John Simpson. Hutchinson says recommendations from sentencing judges like Hoeveler carry weight with the commission, but that weight varies. “You have to give it very careful consideration, but that doesn’t mean you are going to go along with it,” he says. “In [Noriega's] case, it didn’t carry enough weight to change the decision.” Noriega may appeal to the full commission, which now includes Chairman Reilly, Simpson, and Cranston Mitchell. Two commission seats are unfilled. The appeal prospects for early release, however, now appear grim. The three parole commissioners were either appointed by President George W. Bush or his father, President George H.W. Bush. Four years ago, the elder Bush, who ordered the 1989 invasion of Panama and arrest of Noriega, sank a parole bid for the former general by claiming he’d fear for his life if Noriega were released. Hutchinson says politics played no role in the latest decision to deny Noriega parole. “There was no input from the White House, I can tell you that,” he says. “Our agency doesn’t get a lot of political interference.” He says the last time there was interference was in December 1971, when President Richard Nixon, bypassing standard Parole Commission rules, commuted the 13-year prison sentence of former Teamsters union President Jimmy Hoffa for jury tampering and fraud. With Nixon’s help, Hoffa served less than a third of his sentence. But Rubino, Noriega’s lawyer, scoffs at Hutchinson’s statement that there was no political interference in the Noriega parole decision. “This has been political since the start,” he says. Dan Christensen is a staff writer at the Daily Business Review, an American Lawyer Media newspaper in Miami.

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