Noriega returns to Panama after 22 years
Two decades after being ousted during a bloody US invasion, former Panama strongman Manuel Noriega returns home Sunday to prison and a mixed reception.
The 77-year-old is due to arrive on an Iberia flight at 5:30 pm (2230 GMT), guarded by a delegation of six foreign ministry officials, police, doctors and a prosecutor who prepared the transfer for a week in Paris.
Under tight security, Panama's military ruler from 1983 to 1989 will be flown by helicopter from the airport to El Renacer prison, located northwest of the capital in a lush area near the Panama Canal.
"While Panama is known for being peaceful and tolerant, emotions are running high and inmate safety is our priority," Foreign Minister Roberto Henriquez said Friday. "He will get the same treatment as any other inmate -- dignified and respectful but firm."
After serving more than two decades in prisons in the United States and France for drug trafficking and money laundering, Noriega will face three separate sentences of 20 years in Panama for crimes committed under his dictatorship, including the murder of critics.
But it remains uncertain exactly how long he may spend behind bars, as Panamanian law allows inmates 70 years old and over to petition for house arrest. Relatives of victims of Noriega's regime have virulently opposed applying the rule to the former dictator.
Dressed in white and waving white flags and handkerchiefs, more than a hundred former members of the opposition and victims of the regime demonstrated on Calle 50, in the capital's banking center, demanding "justice."
"Neither forgiveness nor oblivion. They're going to bring him to a luxury prison and we want him to pay for his crimes," government employee Justina Rodriguez, 71, told AFP.
Aurelio Barria, who organized the Civic Crusade series of protests in the 1980s against the regime, called for demonstrators to come out into the streets to repudiate the former ruler and insist that he serve out his sentence in jail, not at home.
But the predominantly youthful population -- the average age is 27 -- are more concerned about the economic rigors of everyday life, not the fate of a man who ruled the country with an iron fist decades ago and, in many cases, before they were even born.
Others express compassion, noting that Noriega is suffering health problems.
"Let him live out his old age -- he will go to prison but then go home. Noriega is not the only one to blame, there were others, but he is paying for what he did," said Elvia Maria Ugarte, a 46-year-old housewife.
The return of Noriega, who was a paid CIA agent from 1968 to 1986 before he became an enemy of Washington, has raised expectations about the potential that he could reveal secrets about political figures and wealth amassed under his regime.
Panama's current President Ricardo Martinelli has said that he, for one, would like "to know what happened to all those who in one way or another have been enriched at the expense of military and the state."
"We will learn a lot about the fortunes that were made in this country illegally," Martinelli said, after learning last month that French courts had given the go-ahead for Noriega's extradition back to Panama.
© 2011 AFP