Noriega critic recants - a political deal? Panama colonel may be angling for freedom

A retired Army colonel who incited antigovernment protests here in early June has apparently retracted his charges against military strong man Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. In a document signed July 27, the same day heavily armed security forces stormed his house and arrested him, Col. Roberto D'iaz Herrara stated that he has no proof to support his allegations against General Noriega of corruption, drug trafficking, and political murder.

Colonel D'iaz's lawyer, Alvin Weeden, who has been denied access to his client since the raid, said Sunday that the statement has no validity, that it is little more than a political deal. If D'iaz signed a retraction, Mr. Weeden said, he would be released and Noriega would be able to dispel the allegations.

Neither objective is assured.

D'iaz reportedly remains held in a prison in Panama City, while his wife and four children are in Venezuela, having flown there two days after he was taken. According to diplomats and political observers here, it may not be in Noriega's interest to release D'iaz. By drawing out his drama, they say, Noriega could create a useful smokescreen for the real problems posed by a deteriorating economy and the growing antigovernment movement.

The heavy-handed arrest of D'iaz was also read as a clear signal to those in the military, who might be tempted to follow in his path. Opposition leader Ricardo Arias Calder'on says, ``They used the attack to terrify the population and especially to warn those potential grumblers in the military as to what might happen to them if they speak out.''

Earlier this week, another lawyer attempted to set bail for D'iaz but was refused, according to Weeden. D'iaz has been charged with treason and possession of illegal arms which, under Panamanian law, could result in an extended prison term.

Even if the Army's former second in command is released, Panama's political equation would likely remain unaffected. For D'iaz has little to do with the opposition movement he spawned. His original accusations of Noriega on June 9 only served to confirm and consolidate popular belief. Since then the Civic Crusade, a group of businessmen and lawyers from the Chamber of Commerce, has taken the reins of the protest movement.

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