Fri, Dec 09, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Panama’s former ruler to return

‘PANAMA IS READY’:Manuel Noriega is to serve three 20-year sentences on native soil, although his age and ill health might preclude him from being put in prison

AFP, PANAMA CITY

Panama’s former strongman Manuel Noriega will arrive home on Sunday following his extradition from France to serve prison time in his native land, Panama’s foreign minister said on Wednesday.

The former US ally, now 77, will arrive “on an Iberia flight at 5:30pm,” Roberto Henriquez said in a Twitter post.

A longtime intelligence chief who became the country’s military ruler in 1983, Noriega ruled Panama until his overthrow in a US invasion in 1989.

A Panamanian team that includes foreign ministry officials, police and medical staff has been in Paris since Sunday taking care of paperwork and medical checks before Noriega travels home.

Noriega spent 21 years in a Miami, Florida, prison on drug charges after his overthrow. He was then extradited to France and sentenced to six years in jail for laundering money for the Medellin drug cartel.

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said earlier that Noriega would have to serve three 20-year jail terms for the abduction of opponents: Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and former deputy health minister, in 1985; Captain Moises Giroldi in 1989; and union activist Heliodoro Portugal in 1970.

“Panama is ready to receive Noriega,” Cabinet chief Roxana Mendez told reporters.

She said Noriega would be sent to the El Renacer (Rebirth) prison.

However, Noriega’s future remains uncertain, as Panama allows convicts who are 70 years and older to serve their time at home.

The ex-strongman’s lawyers expect the Panamanian justice to take into account Noriega’s advanced age and weak health, noting he has suffered several strokes.

A truth commission found 110 cases of murders and forced disappearances of Noriega opponents during his dictatorship.

Noriega’s rule ended when then-US president George H.W. Bush ordered US troops to invade on Dec. 20, 1989, claiming that it was necessary to keep US citizens safe, secure the Panama canal, battle drug trafficking and defend democracy.

US soldiers overwhelmed the Panama Defense Force, and after days on the run Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy. US forces surrounded the building and blasted rock-and-roll music from loudspeakers for days. Noriega surrendered on Jan. 3, and was flown to the US.

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