Former military ruler of Panama, once an ally of Washington, was toppled in 1989 by US military action.
Manuel Noriega, Panama’s jailed former military ruler, has arrived back in his home country, where he has been jailed following extradition from France, after receiving final medical clearance.
His plane touched down in Panama City on Sunday evening after flying from Paris via Madrid.
Noriega, 77 was taken from the Panama City airport by helicopter to El Renacer prison, on the banks of the Panama Canal, having been convicted in absentia of crimes during his 1983 to 1989 rule.
Al Jazeera’s Monica Villamizar, reporting from Gamboa, Panama, said the victims and members of the media gathered outside the prison were not allowed to see Noriega’s face.
“The authorities here said that they have used a decoy of Manuel Noriega. The first person we saw on the wheelchair was not Manuel Noriega, the second person who came in the caravan was actually him,” she said.
“But nobody got to see his face. The media, and even the victims, that came all the way here started protesting that the authorities had handled this badly and the president had to intervene.”
The former general’s lawyers say they will be requesting that he be kept under house arrest, under a law that allows people older than 70 to serve out their sentences at home.
Last month, a French court approved a request from Panama to send him back home to be jailed over his convictions for murder, corruption and embezzlement.
|Monica Villamizar reports from Gamboa prison|
The French justice ministry, in a one-line statement, said France turned Noriega over to Panamanian officials on Sunday in accordance with extradition proceedings.
Noriega had the right to appeal, but his lawyers said he wanted to return to Panama.
He is believed to be travelling with a team of Panamanian officials, including the country’s attorney-general and a doctor.
Noriega’s critics have called on Panamanians to take to the streets upon his return later on Sunday to show their condemnation of the former military ruler.
Noriega’s return “should finally close a chapter of history that we do not ever want to happen again,” said Samuel Lewis, the former Panamanian 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.”
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 murders 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.
|Noriega was convicted in absentia of crimes committed during his time in power from 1983-89|
Roberto Henriquez, Panama’s foreign minister, has said the government’s priority is to guarantee Noriega’s safety.
Antoin Levy, Noriega’s French lawyer, told Al Jazeera from Paris that his client has always claimed his innocence on the charges, and is looking forward to the opportunity to tell his side of the story to the Panamanian people.
“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,” Levy 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 is 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.