Noriega en route to prison in Panama after 22 years

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Former Panama strongman Manuel Noriega flew out of France on Sunday and headed home to more prison time two decades after being ousted in a bloody US invasion.

An Iberia plane carrying the former dictator took off from a Paris airport shortly after 0800 GMT and headed to Madrid, from where the 77-year-old was to begin the final leg of his journey home.

"This morning French authorities handed Manuel Noriega over to Panamanian authorities for his extradition to Panama," Bruno Badre, a spokesman for the French justice ministry, told AFP after the plane took off.

Noriega is due to arrive in Panama 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 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 northwest of the capital in a lush area near the Panama Canal.

After serving more than 20 years 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.

"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."

And yet his prison conditions have drawn criticism, with Minister of Government Roxana Mendez telling AFP that the former dictator will spend his days in a "recently remodeled" facility with a private bathroom and high-tech features aimed at boosting security.

He will be allowed visits by relatives several times a week, and local media reports say his cell will have a small visiting room, a double bed, a refrigerator, furniture and chairs, plus a ramp for easy mobility.

"What has he done to be rewarded with such luxury in jail?" asked Carmenza Spadafora, sister of Hugo Spadafora, a Noriega opponent beheaded in 1985 in a murder for which the dictator will serve one of his three sentences.

It remains uncertain exactly how long he may spend behind bars, as Panamanian law allows inmates aged 70 and over to petition for house arrest. Relatives of victims of Noriega's regime have virulently opposed applying the rule to the former dictator.

Aurelio Barria, who organised 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 -- is more concerned with the economic rigours of everyday life, not the fate of a man who ruled the country with an iron fist before many of them 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.

At his extradition hearing in November, Noriega said he wanted to "return to Panama without hatred or resentment."

"I want to go back to Panama to prove my innocence in these procedures that were carried out in my absence and without legal assistance," he told the court.

The return of Noriega, on the CIA's payroll from 1968 to 1986 before he became an enemy of Washington, has sparked speculation over the possibility that he could reveal secrets about political figures and wealth amassed under his regime.

Panama's current President Ricardo Martinelli has said that he would like to know who "in one way or another has been enriched at the expense of the military and the state" during that time.

Noriega spent more than 20 years in a US jail after his overthrow in 1989 before being extradited to France in 2010, where he was convicted of money laundering.


© 2011 AFP

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