San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Noriega could be home in Panama for Christmas

PANAMA CITY – Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega should be home for Christmas, and he may not go to prison after his extradition from France “because he is a sick man,” his defense lawyer said Wednesday.

“Gen. Noriega should be arriving in our country before Christmas,” Julio Berríos told AFP.

The lawyer said Noriega, who was overthrown in a U.S. invasion in 1989, had suffered two strokes in recent years “which have weakened his physical faculties.”

He could be sent to prison on his arrival, Berríos said. “Or, if his health is very bad he will have to be taken to the hospital. It all depends on the state he is in when he arrives in the country.”

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said on Wednesday that if France extradites Noriega, 77, he would “go to jail.” Martinelli made the comments during an official visit to the United Kingdom.

A longtime intelligence chief who became the country’s military ruler in 1983, Noriega spent 21 years in a Miami prison on drug charges after his overthrow, and then was extradited last year to France, where he was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of laundering money for the Medellín drug cartel.

Panama sought his extradition from France to serve three 20-year sentences for the murders of three opponents – Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and former deputy health minister in 1985; Capt. Moisés Giroldi in 1989; and union activist Heliodoro Portugal in 1970.

Noriega “has been fighting for 22 years to return to his country, confronting an empire like the United States, a power like France, his own country, which turned its back on him, and friends who abandoned him,” Berríos said.

The French courts on Wednesday received U.S. approval for Noriega’s extradition to Panama, but delayed a decision until Nov. 23.

“This week it will be determined whether the French prime minister must give his approval for [Noriega] to be sent to Panama,” Berríos said. “This should not be a problem because the French had already acceded to a previous extradition request.”

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