Ex-dictator Manuel Noriega headed home to Panama

Citizens of Panama have mixed feelings on the return of Manuel Noriega, a dictator deposed and imprisoned by the United States. 

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
The plane carrying Panama's former dictator Manuel Noriega is shown as he is extradited to Panama, at Orly airport near Paris, Sunday. Noriega, Panama's ruthless drug-running military dictator of the 1980s, was returned home on Sunday, to serve a 20-year term in a jungle prison for the murders of opponents during his rule. Noriega, now 77, was toppled in a US invasion of Panama in 1989 and has spent the last two decades behind bars, first in Florida and then in France after being convicted for drug trafficking and money laundering during his time in power.

After more than 20 years in French and American prisons, Panama’s ex-military leader Manuel Noriega will be extradited to his home country to serve three 20-year sentences for crimes committed during his 1983 to 1989 rule.

Mr. Noriega was convicted on drug trafficking and money laundering charges that landed him more than two decades in American and French prisons. With his time served, he now returns to Panama where many locals feel conflicting emotions about his homecoming.

While many Panamanians have expressed a desire to move on from the nation’s troubled past, others have called for residents to take to the streets in protest to show their condemnation of the former dictator, reports the BBC. Amid this climate, local government officials have said Noriega’s safety is their paramount concern.

While the 77-year-old dictator faces a jail term of up to six decades, it remains unclear how long he’ll stay in jail. Panama has a law allowing inmates 70 or older to petition to serve the rest of their sentence under house arrest. Already, there is anger among critics that Noriega will enjoy prison conditions that are too comfortable -- his cell will include a visiting room, furniture, double bed, and a refrigerator among other amenities.

“What has he done to be rewarded with such luxury in jail?” Carmenza Spadafora asked Agence France-Presse. Mrs. Spadafora’s brother, an opponent of the ex-ruler, was beheaded in 1985.

Although the dictator is widely disliked by most Panamanians, the Daily Telegraph reports that now “even bitter opponents dismiss Noriega as part of a distant, shadowy past.” Today, most people will likely be interested in learning how and if the ex-ruler can help put to rest any of the nearly 100 unsolved murders and disappearances that occurred during his rule. He was convicted in absentia for three homicide cases that involve at least 11 murders.

The extradition marks the first time Noriega has returned to Panama since he was removed from power after a US invasion in late 1989, reports Al Jazeera. Upon arriving he will be directly transferred by helicopter from the airport in Panama City to El Renacer prison. The detention facility is located on the banks of the Panama Canal.

From 1968 to 1986, Noriega was a close ally of the US and received much support from the Central Intelligence Agency, reports RFI. However, relations between the dictator and the US soon turned and he became an avowed enemy of the US. By the time he was arrested in 1990 he stood accused of turning his nation into a drug-trafficking hub.

In a country where the average age is 27, many people are unlikely to be overly concerned about the fate of a dictator who ruled before many of the current residents were even born. Despite the uncertain fate awaiting him, Noriega has reportedly expressed happiness to finally be returning to his homeland.

“He was very impatient, very happy. He’s going home,” said Antonin Levy, one of Noriega’s French attorneys in an interview with the Associated Press.

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