San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gen. Noriega Could Be Heading Home Soon

Former Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega could be back on his native soil within the year, despite being sentenced last week to seven years in a French prison for money laundering.

That’s the optimistic prediction of Noriega’s Panamanian lawyer Julio Berrío, who thinks the French judge will agree to reduce the aging general’s sentence to eight months.

“We hope to bring him home so him home so he can spend his final days in Panama close to his family. He is not a danger to anyone in this country,” Berrío told The Nica Times this week in a phone interview from Panama City.

A French judge sentenced Noriega to seven years in prison and a 10 million-euro ($12.5 million) fine for laundering money in France in the 1980s. The judge also ordered the former Panamanian dictator to pay an additional $2.5 million in legal expenses and have his assets frozen in France.

Still, Berrío and the rest of Noriega’s international legal defense team remain optimistic. Berrío said the three years that the 76-year-old Noriega spent fighting extradition to France from a U.S. jail cell will count as time served in France. Plus the general’s age, poor health, and good behavior should combine to convince the judge to reduce the sentence to eight months, Berrío said.

The Panamanian lawyer says he has more confidence in the French judicial system than he does in the U.S. or Panamanian courts, which he thinks are more susceptible to political influences.

Noriega agrees. In an hour-long monologue before the French judge last week, the former CIA asset said he was being punished for refusing to go along with a U.S. plot to invade Nicaragua in the 1980s. He said the ensuing U.S. invasion of Panama and his conviction on drug-trafficking charges were part of the same conspiracy.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega echoed that sentiment in an address to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) earlier this month. “We all know that Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega worked closely with George H.W. Bush when he was head of the CIA before he was President of United States,” Ortega told PARLACEN, where Noriega’s daughter Sandra sits as a lawmaker representing Panama.

Ortega added that the former U.S. president tried to “involve” Noriega in the war in Nicaragua. “And when he didn’t accept Panama’s involvement, they came to punish!” (NT, July 9).

Though the Panamanian government recently requested Noriega’s extradition to Panama, where he was already convicted in absentia for three counts of murder, Berrío thinks it’s more likely that Noriega will first serve his sentence in France before being repatriated.

Once he’s back in Panama, Noriega would probably be allowed to serve out his term under house arrest, once all the proper paperwork is filed, Berrío said. Panamanian law stipulates that people over 70 should be allowed to serve prison time under house arrest.

But Noriega’s real challenge could be surviving his sentence in a French cell, the lawyer said.

In the United States, Noriega essentially lived in a prison-apartment setup that is afforded white collar criminals and prisoners of war with a high rank. But in France, Noriega is still being treated as a common hood even though a French judge agreed last month to grant him prisoner-of-war status, Berrío said.

For a septuagenarian who has already suffered two strokes and heart problems while in U.S. custody, life on the cellblock in La Santé Prison is going to be very rough, his lawyer said.

As head of the military and the police, Gen. Noriega ruled Panama with an iron fist from 1983-1989. His paramilitary groups known as “Dignity Battalions” violently repressed any attempts at street protest against his government.

Noriega was eventually ousted by U.S. Marines following the brutally destructive U.S. invasion in 1989. Noriega was whisked to Miami to face a pending conviction on drug- trafficking and money laundering charges.

The former strongman served 17 years in U.S. custody as a prison of war and then three more years while fighting his requested extradition to France.

After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed off on his extradition order, and Noriega was taken to France last April (TT, April 30).

Though his possible return to Panama has caused some concern in a country that is trying to shed its banana republic image, those who worked closely with Noriega in the past claim a political comeback is unlikely at this point in his life (NT, May 7).

“His political life has diminished; he’s old and sick,” José I. Blandón, Noriega’s top political advisor in the 1980s, told The Nica Times last May.

“Those who supported him in the past have either moved on to get jobs as lawyers or professionals, or they are old like him, the former advisor said.”

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