Deposed leader serving seven-year sentence for money laundering is wanted at home over charges of human-rights abuses.
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.
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.
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.