GENERAL Noriega's stay in the Vatican's Embassy in Panama City raises difficult questions about the purposes of asylum and who's entitled to it. It seems hard, somehow, to put the former Panamanian dictator in the company of Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty, the Hungarian cleric given sanctuary in the United States Embassy in Budapest. Or the Soviet evangelicals who lived for years in the US Embassy. Or Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi, now protected by the US Embassy in Beijing.
Those individuals were in clear danger of persecution. Noriega is simply a criminal, Washington argues. But he's also a former head of state - despicable as his record may have been in that job. And Latin America has a long tradition of offering asylum to leaders chased from office.
The Vatican's representative in Panama was honoring that tradition in granting Noriega's plea for asylum. He was also taking a step toward ending the bloodshed in the country. The general's loyalists, with their leader out of commission, have lost their incentive to fight. Concurrently, popular support seems to be growing for the government headed by Guillermo Endara.
Mr. Endara has stated he won't extradite Noriega to the US if the general comes into Panamanian hands, since the country's constitution forbids that. But the last thing he wants, presumably, is responsibility for the ex-leader. President Bush proclaims a desire to try Noriega, but the messiness of such a trial - dipping into Central America's brew of CIA operatives, drug money, and contras - casts doubts on the depth of that desire.
Out of respect for international law, Washington has little choice but to honor the sanctuary given Noriega by the Papal Nuncio. The Vatican's interests in Latin America are extensive. Giving in to US pressures to turn over Noriega could damage those interests.
Important precedents are being set in Panama. US military action and installation of a new government give students of international law plenty to debate. The treatment of Noriega has its complexities too.
As they're sorted out, the concept of diplomatic asylum may itself need protection.