Ex-Panama strongman Noriega returns home to prison

Noriega was toppled in a U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989  and had spent the last two decades behind bars, first in  Florida and then in France after being convicted for drug  trafficking and money laundering.

Manuel Noriega

Accompanied by Panama’s attorney general and a doctor, he  arrived last evening from France on a commercial flight  and was flown in a helicopter to the outskirts of a  jungle-surrounded penitentiary beside the Panama Canal.

The 77-year-old was driven into the prison past a small  group of protesters and media in a sports utility vehicle and  bundled into a wheelchair.

A physically diminished shadow of the strongman once known  for waving a machete while delivering fiery speeches, Noriega’s  return is unlikely to have a major political impact on a  country that has enjoyed an economic boom in recent years.

Widely reviled when he was Panama’s de facto leader from  1983 until 1989, his small cadre of remaining supporters has  kept a low profile and even bitter opponents dismiss Noriega as  part of a distant, shadowy past.

Much of the focus on Noriega will be on whether he sheds  any light on the dictatorship’s mysteries, including some 100  unsolved killings or disappearances in the period of army rule  from 1968 to 1989.

Noriega was convicted in absentia in three homicide cases  involving 11 murders, including the 1985 beheading of Hugo  Spadafora, a physician who threatened to reveal Noriega’s drug  ties, and the 1989 execution-style slaying of nine officers who  staged a failed coup.

Sentenced to 20 years in each case, he will serve the terms  concurrently. Official photographs of the facility prepared for  him at the El Renacer prison showed a spartan, beige-painted  cell with a bathroom, table and small bed.

Noriega will also face charges over the 1970 murder of  Heliodoro Portugal, an opponent of Panama’s military leaders.

“We hope he talks and says where the rest of the  disappeared are, what happened to those who were killed,” said  Portugal’s daughter, Patria Portugal.
Noriega qualifies for house arrest due to his age but the  decision rests with the government. His lawyer, Julio Berrios,  said house arrest would also imply an acceptance of his  sentence and mean Noriega could not launch a legal challenge.

Leaders of a civilian movement that protested Noriega’s  regime in the late 1980s urged the government to keep him in  prison, equating house arrest with virtual freedom.      “People who have … been accused and sentenced for killing  people have to serve their sentences, independently of their  age,” said Aurelio Barria, a businessman who spent the last  years of Noriega’s rule in exile in fear for his life.

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