Manuel Noriega set to return home
Panama's former dictator to return after 20 years after a court agreed he could be extradited to serve time for murder and corruption
Panama’s former dictator Manuel Noriega set to return home after 20 years.
Over 20 years after he was toppled during a US invasion, Panama's former dictator, Manuel Noriega, is set to return home, after a French court agreed he could be extradited to serve time for murder and corruption.
Panamanian human rights activists have long demanded that Noriega, who last set foot in his country in 1990, be returned to Panama to face jail for crimes committed during his notorious 1983-1989 regime.
On Wednesday a French court paved the way for an imminent repatriation, ruling that Noriega could be extradited pending the green light from the country's prime minister François Fillon. The decision followed an official extradition request in July this year and the consent of authorities in Washington, needed because Noriega had originally been sent to France from the United States.
Now 77, Noriega faces two 20-year jail terms in Panama, although because of his age he could be allowed to serve the time under house arrest.
Among the crimes for which Noriega was convicted during his lengthy absence from Panama is the execution of Moises Giroldi, an army major who attempted to dethrone the former dictator during a failed 1989 uprising.
Noriega also faces jail for involvement in the murder of Hugo Spadafora, a fierce critic and opponent who spoke out about the dictator's alleged ties to Colombian drug traffickers.
Spadafora's headless body was located in September 1985 on Panama's border region with Costa Rica.
Born into poverty in 1934, Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno was adopted as a young boy and went on to study at a Peruvian military academy. He became a career soldier, rising quickly through the ranks.
After taking full control of the country in 1983 Noriega, who had already been recruited and trained by the CIA, became a valued ally of the United States.
The US saw Noriega as a handy asset in its Cold War battle against communism in Latin America and a powerful weapon against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista regime during the contra war.
But the partnership soured – Noriega was increasingly suspected of being in cahoots with Colombia's Medellin drug cartel, helping the South American narcotraficantes smuggle tons of cocaine into the US – and by the end of the 1980s Washington brought the relationship to an abrupt end.
In 1989 George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion of Panama, deploying over 20,000 US troops there as part of Operation Just Cause. The invasion aimed to remove Noriega and replace him with an elected, civilian government.
"We will chase him and we will find him," General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, vowed at the time. "We have decapitated him from the leadership of his country. He is not running anything. We own all the bases. We have cut off the head of that Government."
In January 1990 Noriega handed himself over, reputedly after US troops surrounded his refuge inside Panama City's Vatican embassy and blasted the building with ear-splitting rock music, including the Clash's track I Fought the Law and Guns N' Roses' Welcome to the Jungle.
Noriega was spirited out of the country to the United States and was sentenced to 40 years in prison on multiple drugs and racketeering charges in 1992. During his sentencing, Noriega appeared in court clad in his trademark military fatigues and read a lengthy statement in which he claimed his conviction was politically motivated.
"I accuse George Herbert Walker Bush of using his power and authority to influence and subvert the criminal justice system of the United Sates to condemn me," Noriega told the Miami court.
In 2010, Noriega switched continents, extradited to France on money laundering charges.
According to reports in the Panamanian press, Noriega's lawyers said authorities in Panama City would now have to send a military plane to take the elderly former dictator home.
Speaking during a recent trip to London, Panama's president, Ricardo Martinelli, said Noriega would "go to jail when he arrives".
Asked if Noriega would be allowed to serve his time under house arrest, Martinelli told reporters: "That's not necessarily going to happen — but it's something the judge has to decide."