PANAMA CITY – Former strongman Manuel Noriega was behind bars in Panama on Monday, a day after returning to his homeland following more than two decades in jail in the United States and France for drug trafficking and money laundering.
Noriega’s relatives said they were grateful and relieved that he was finally back in Panama, even though it could mean another lengthy prison term for the deposed dictator, who already has spent 22 years in prison overseas.
“God’s will is good, kind and perfect. Praise God,” said Thays Noriega, the daughter of the former president in a Twitter message on Monday.
A military dictator from 1983 to 1989, Noriega faces three separate sentences after being convicted in absentia for crimes committed in Panama, including the murder of critics.
Monday marked the first full day back in Panama for Noriega, who is incarcerated in Panama City’s El Renacer prison.
Interior Minister Roxana Mendez assured her compatriots Monday that Noriega would not be held in luxurious conditions, but would be able to receive visitors by the end of the week, as all inmates at the facility do.
The government earlier released pictures of the cell to dispel rumors that Noriega would be held in comfortable quarters.
The ex-general arrived Sunday on an Iberia flight from Paris escorted by police, a delegation of six foreign ministry officials, doctors and a prosecutor.
He was then whisked aboard a helicopter and flown directly to the El Renacer prison, which he entered surrounded by a group of heavily-armed police and covered in a cloak.
Noriega will be serving three 20-year jail terms for the abductions and murders of three opponents: Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and former deputy health minister, in 1985; Captain Moises Giroldi in 1989; and union activist Heliodoro Portugal in 1970.
President Ricardo Martinelli told reporters on Sunday that Noriega faces prison because “he must pay for all his crimes, all the damage, all the horror” he had caused.
Noriega is being housed in a cell measuring some 12 square meters (130 square feet) that has two windows, a metal door, a bed and a toilet.
Exactly how much time he will spend at El Renacer is not certain, however, because Panama allows convicts who are 70 years and older to serve their time at home.
Noriega’s attorney Julio Berrioz berated the government for not letting him immediately see his client. “They already began to violate his procedural rights because they did not allow his defense to enter into immediate contact with him,” Berrioz said.
The ex-strongman’s lawyers expect Panamanian justice to take into account Noriega’s advanced age and weak health, noting he has suffered several strokes.
Noriega spent 20 years in a Miami prison on drug charges after his overthrow, and was then extradited to France, where he was sentenced to six years in prison for laundering money for the Medellín drug cartel. He spent nearly two years behind bars before he was extradited.
A truth commission found 110 cases of murders and forced disappearances of Noriega opponents during his dictatorship.
The return of Noriega, who was on the CIA’s payroll from 1968 to 1986 before he became an enemy of Washington, has sparked speculation at the possibility that he could reveal secrets about political figures and wealth amassed under his regime.
Noriega’s rule came to an end when then-U.S. president George H.W. Bush ordered US troops to invade Panama on December 20, 1989, claiming it was necessary to safeguard U.S. citizens, secure the U.S.-built canal, battle drug trafficking and defend democracy.
U.S. soldiers overwhelmed the Panama Defense Force, and after days on the run Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy. U.S. forces surrounded the building and blasted rock-and-roll music from loudspeakers for days.
Noriega finally surrendered on January 3, 1990, and was immediately flown to the United States to face drug trafficking charges.