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Noriega Cleared of Murder Charges in Panama Trial

July 14, 1995

PANAMA CITY (AP) _ A jury on Thursday declared former president Manuel Antonio Noriega innocent in the murders of nine army officers who participated in a 1989 coup attempt against him.

Noriega was convicted of the lesser charge of depriving the officers of their liberty, which carries a prison sentence of between two and five years.

Noriega is already serving 40 years in a Miami prison on a 1992 drug and racketeering conviction.

Officials said the nine were killed during the Oct. 3, 1989, military coup, but witnesses said the coup leaders were transferred to a military base and then executed. U.S. troops overthrew Noriega three months later.

From his Miami prison cell, Noriega denied ordering the execution of those who had plotted against him.

``I was not in control ... and I didn’t know who was for me or against me,″ Noriega said in a statement sent for the trial.

The jury deliberated for eight hours on charges facing Noriega and six others. The courtroom was tightly guarded as the decision was read.

The chief of Noriega’s security force, Asuncion Eliecer Gaitan, and Gonzalo Gonzalez, an army battalion chief, were convicted of murder. Both are fugitives, as is another soldier who was convicted of five murders and acquitted of the other four.

The other three defendants were acquitted.

``This is an injustice,″ said Petra Ortega, widow of Sgt. Ismael Ortega, one of the coup leaders. ``Here one can kill and go free.″

Noriega was convicted earlier this year and sentenced to 43 years in prison in Panama for the murders of the coup leader, Maj. Moises Giroldi, and a political opponent, Hugo Spadafora Franco.