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Elderly, infirm Manuel Noriega returns to Panama

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 12th, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Panama's former military ruler Manuel Noriega has returned to Panama. The 77-year-old former strongman is expected to be jailed following his extradition from France. He is expected to be 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.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Reaction to his return from Panamanians has been subdued. Despised by many, liked by others, no protests greeted his arrival as the general mood of the public was preoccupied with holiday shopping.

A French court approved a request last month from Panama to send him back home to be jailed over his convictions for murder, corruption and embezzlement. Noriega's lawyers said he wanted to return to Panama.

His return "should finally close a chapter of history that we do not ever want to happen again," Samuel Lewis, the former Panamanian foreign minister said. Lewis' 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.

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

Panama convicted Noriega in absentia when he was overseas for the murders of two political opponents in the 1980s. He was sentenced to 20 years in each case.

The ex-general, whose pockmarked complexion 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.

"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," Antoin Levy, Noriega's French lawyer told Al Jazeera.

It's 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.

Panama, once a revolving cast of military strongmen, is now governed by its fourth democratically elected president, Ricardo Martinelli.

Many Panamanians express indifference to Noriega, who feel the once-feared dictator's time has long since gone. 

"I don't think Noriega has anything hugely important to say," retired Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, who headed Panama's army before Noriega took over in the early 1980s, says. "The things he knows about have lost relevance, because the world has changed and the country has, as well."

"In politics, he won't have any great impact, because the people of Panama have other concerns," Marco Gandasegui, a sociology professor at Panama's Center for Latin American Studies adds.

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