[QODLink]
Americas
Noriega bound for Panama after 22-year absence
Former military ruler on final leg of journey home from France after being extradited to serve sentences for murder.
Last Modified: 11 Dec 2011 20:51

Manuel Noriega, Panama's jailed former military ruler, is nearing the end of the journey back to his homeland after receiving final medical clearance to be extradited from France, where he was serving out a prison sentence for corruption.

His flight took off from Paris' Orly airport to head for Madrid on Spain's Iberia airlines, delivered directly to the aircraft by a four-car convoy and motorcycles that escorted him from the French capital's walked La Sante prison.

The flight left just after 8am for Madrid. Spanish airport authority AENA later confirmed the plane had taken off for Panama just before 2pm (13:00 GMT), after announcing two short delays.

Noriega, 77, is expected to be transferred to prison once he arrives in Panama, having been convicted in absentia of crimes during his 1983-89 rule.

The French justice ministry, in a one-line statement, said France turned Noriega over to Panamanian officials on Sunday in accordance with extradition proceedings. It was the only official remark.

Appeal possible

Noriega was jailed in France for money laundering. He was extradited there in 2010 after serving 17 years in prison in the US on a drug-trafficking conviction.

Panama convicted him during his captivity overseas for the slayings of two political opponents in the 1980s. He was sentenced to 20 years in each case.

Ricardo Martinelli, Panama's president, has said Noriega will be taken to prison immediately upon his arrival from France.

The ex-general, whose pockmarked face earned him the nickname "Pineapple Face," could eventually leave prison under a law allowing prisoners over 70 to serve out their time under house arrest.

Antoin Levy, Noriega's French lawyer, told Al Jazeera from Paris that his client has always claimed innocence of the charges, and is looking forward to the opportunity to tell his side of the story to the Panamanian people.

Noriega's extradition to France came after he spent 20 years in a US federal prison in Miami, Florida

"Finally he wanted to go back to face his convictions and to face the people to whom he has to render accounts in the end," he said.

Questioned why the former general did not exercise his right to appeal the conviction in his homeland at the time of the trial, the lawyer said that this would have meant having to stay in France.

"As he was judged in absentia, they will have to reopen the case, and to allow him this time and finally, because Panama is a democracy, to have a lawyer and to defend himself," he said.

Levy said Noriega will be faced with a dilemma in choosing whether to focus on accepting the charges and pushing for house arrest, or fight to overturn them. 

It will be the first time Noriega has been back to the country he ruled from 1983 until 1989, before being ousted by a US invasion in late 1989.

He is expected to be taken from the Panama City airport by helicopter to El Renacer prison, on the banks of the Panama Canal.

A doctor was reported to be among the team of Panamanian officials escorting the 77-year-old ex-dictator back to Panama.

"He was very impatient, very happy. He's going home," Antonin Levy, one of his French lawyers, said by telephone Saturday night, a day after his last visit with Noriega.

Unpaid debt

Many Panamanians still want to see the man who stole elections and dispatched squads of thugs to beat opponents bloody in the streets to pay his debt at home.

"Noriega was responsible for the invasion and those who died in the operation. He dishonored his uniform, there was barely a shot and he went off to hide. He must pay," said Hatuey Castro, 82, a member of the anti-Noriega opposition who was detained and beaten by the strongman's thugs in 1989.

Though other US conflicts have long since pushed him from the spotlight, the 1989 invasion that ousted Noriega was one of the most bitterly debated events of the Cold War's waning years.

The ex-dictator's return "should finally close a chapter of history that we do not ever want to happen again," said Samuel Lewis, a former Panamania's former foreign minister, whose family was forced out of the country in retaliation for opposing Noriega.

"Hopefully, we can put this sad chapter of history in the past and focus on the future," Lewis said.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
Topics in this article
People
Country
City
Organisation
Featured on Al Jazeera
The author argues that in the new economy, it's people, not skills or majors, that have lost value.
Colleagues of detained Al Jazeera journalists press demands for their release, 100 days after their arrest in Egypt.
Mehdi Hasan discusses online freedoms and the potential of the web with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.
A tight race seems likely as 814 million voters elect leaders in world's largest democracy next week.
Featured
Deadly attacks on anti-mining activists in the Philippines part of a global trend, according to new report.
Activists say 'Honor Diaries' documentary exploits gender-based violence to further an anti-Islamic agenda.
As Syria's civil war escalates along the Turkish border, many in Turkey are questioning the country's involvement.
Treatment for autism in the region has progressed, but lack of awareness and support services remains a challenge.
The past isn't far away for a people exiled from Crimea by Russia and the decades it took to get home.
join our mailing list