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Ex-dictator Manuel Noriega to return to Panama

By Tim Johnson,

MEXICO CITY — Twenty-two years after American GIs invaded Panama and spirited away dictator Manuel Noriega, the former strongman will return Sunday and be whisked to a prison cell in his homeland.

Jitters over his arrival have rippled through Panama, where Noriega, now 77 and ailing, still has allies who fear the secrets he may reveal.

Noriega spent 20 years in a Miami prison on drug charges after the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, and then was sent to France on charges that he had laundered $3 million for the Medellin cocaine cartel. France has cleared Noriega’s return for Sunday.

Noriega faces at least two 20-year prison terms in Panama for the disappearance of political opponents during his 1983-89 rule. But his future remains uncertain. Panama allows convicts who are 70 and older to serve their sentences under house arrest.

Guarded by Panamanian custodians, Noriega is to arrive on a commercial flight Sunday afternoon and then be sent to El Renacer prison, Justice Minister Roxana Mendez said. She added that he would not have a special cell.

Largely barred from making public statements during more than two decades of incarceration, the stocky onetime military intelligence chief apparently desires to speak out. “He said as much in his hearing [in France], that he is coming to Panama to proclaim his innocence,” his lawyer, Julio Berrio, told reporters in Panama.

Opponents of Noriega planned to march Friday in Panama City to repudiate the former dictator and oppose any house arrest.

Noriega’s rule ended on Dec. 20, 1989, when President George H.W. Bush ordered Operation Just Cause, an invasion of more than 25,000 troops, to restore democracy, secure the Panama Canal and fight drug trafficking.

An adroit authoritarian, Noriega knew how to work many angles. He was on the CIA’s payroll from 1967, historians say, even as he allied with Colombian drug traffickers to launder their profits in French banks.

— McClatchy -Tribune

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