San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Noriega victims worry justice won’t come in Panama

PANAMA CITY – Victims of the brutal dictatorship of former dictator Manuel Noriega worry his imminent return will open up old wounds and could see him escape justice at home.

“The country will be divided again,” said Carmen Spadafora, sister of guerrilla fighter Hugo Spadafora, who was murdered in 1985 for his criticism of the Noriega regime. “This will stir things up.”

After spending more than 22 years in U.S. and French prisons, Noriega is expected back in Panama before Christmas following a French appeals court’s ruling that he could be extradited to serve time for crimes committed under his iron-fisted rule of the 1980s.

The former U.S. ally, now 77, ruled Panama from 1983 until his overthrow in a U.S. invasion in 1989.

He spent 21 years in a Miami prison on drug charges after his overthrow, and then was extradited to France, where he was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of laundering money for the Medellín drug cartel.

Panama wants him extradited from France to serve three 20-year sentences for the murders of Spadafora and two other opponents – Captain Moises Giroldi in 1989 and union activist Heliodoro Portugal in 1970.

But despite the sentences, Noriega’s future remains uncertain, as Panama allows convicts 70 years and older to serve their time at home.

His lawyers expect the Panamanian justice to take into account the former ruler’s age and state of health, noting he has suffered several strokes, fueling concerns among his victims and their relatives.

President Ricardo Martinelli, however, has vowed to send Noriega to prison.

Noriega “must return to Panama and pay for all the crimes against humanity. One of the first things he needs to do is to repent, apologize and speak up,” said Maritza Maestre of a victims’ relatives group.

“Families want to give Christian burials to their relatives” who disappeared during the regime, he added.

A truth commission found 110 cases of murders and forced disappearances of Noriega opponents during his dictatorship.

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