| Noriega is serving three 20-year jail terms after being convicted in absentia for crimes committed in Panama [AFP]
Manuel Noriega, the jailed former military ruler of Panama, has been taken from his prison cell to a public hospital for treatment after a possible stroke, officials said.
The 77-year-old was taken to the Hospital Santo Tomas on Sunday after suffering "hypertension with a possibility of a stroke," national police said in a statement.
"He had symptoms that indicated a stroke," Franklin Vergara, the health minister said later, adding that Noriega would be kept under observation in the intensive care unit for 24 hours and would undergo further tests.
Noriega spent 22 years behind bars in the US and France on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, for the Medellin drug cartel, before being extradited to Panama on December 11.
He returned home in a wheelchair, having difficulty walking and speaking due to strokes suffered in the past.
The de facto leader of the country between 1983 to 1989, Noriega is serving three 20-year jail terms after being convicted in absentia for crimes committed in Panama, including the murder of critics.
Noriega was on the CIA's payroll from 1968 to 1986 before he became an enemy of Washington, and his return to Panama led to speculation that he could reveal secrets about political figures and wealth amassed under his rule.
His power came to an end when President George Bush ordered US troops to invade Panama on December 20, 1989, claiming it was necessary to safeguard American citizens, secure the US-built canal, battle drug trafficking and defend democracy.
Noriega, who will turn 78 in the coming week, is serving sentences for the abduction and murder of three opponents: Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and former deputy health minister, in 1985; Moises Giroldi, a military commander, in 1989; and union activist Heliodoro Portugal, in 1970.
He also faces a series of other complaints over human rights abuses.
A truth commission in Panama found 110 cases of murders and forced disappearances of Noriega opponents during his rule.
'Face the law'
News of his hospitalisation spread quickly in the Central American nation.
"I'm glad he is getting the medical attention he denied me," said Roberto Diaz Herrera, a former aide to Noriega who was later imprisoned and nearly died from illness.
"I want him to recover and face the law."
There has been some speculation that Noriega may be allowed to leave prison, as Panama allows certain convicts aged 70 years and older to serve their time at home.
Former protest leader Aurelio Barria said he found it "suspicious" that Noriega's condition had come to light on the same day that riot police broke up a protest of indigenous activists.
Barria feared it could all be part of an effort by Noriega's family to bring him home and said that if he was ill he should be treated "and when he is cured, he should return to his cell".
When he arrived home, Noriega's lawyers said they expected the Panamanian justice system to take into account their client's advanced age and weak health.