Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Noriega returns to Panama as inmate

Manuel Noriega, pictured here in 1988, was jailed for the slaying of political opponents in the 1980s (AP)
Manuel Noriega is pushed in a wheelchair by a police officer into El Renacer prison (AP)

More than two decades after the US forced him from power, Manuel Noriega returned to Panama on Sunday as a prisoner and, to many of those he once ruled with impunity, an irrelevant man.

Some Panamanians feel hatred for the former strongman and rejected American ally; a few others nostalgia. But as he returned to his native country for the first time since his ouster, it seemed like few people had any strong feelings at all.

There were no legions of admirers at Panama City's Tocumen airport when the Spanish Iberia airlines' flight touched down, delivering him from Paris' La Sante prison after a stopover in Madrid.

Noriega, who has served drug sentences in the United States and a money-laundering jail term in France, was whisked by helicopter to the El Renacer prison to serve out three 20-year sentences for the slayings of political opponents in the 1980s.

An elevated platform was set up at the prison so journalists could watch Noriega being wheeled into prison on a wheelchair, giving Panamanians what likely was their only glimpse of the man who once ran the country like his private fiefdom.

About a dozen protesters, identifying themselves as relatives of army officers shot by Noriega's forces, gathered at the prison's main entrance. One held a sign saying "Justice, Noriega, Killer." Another woman shouted "Die, you wretch! Now you're going to pay for your crimes."

President Ricardo Martinelli said Noriega "should pay for the damage and horror committed against the people of Panama."

The 77-year-old former general returned to a country much different from the one he left after surrendering to American forces on January 3, 1990. The government, once a revolving cast of military strongmen, is now governed by its fourth democratically-elected president.

While some Panamanians are eager to see punishment for the man who stole elections and dispatched squads of thugs to beat opponents bloody in the streets, others believe his return means little.

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

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