- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2007

PANAMA CITY (AP) — The 1989 U.S. invasion that ousted dictator Manuel Noriega opened this small nation’s road to greater democracy and prosperity. Now Panama is bracing for his potential return, and the likelihood that he will spend little time behind bars.

Noriega, who has spent 18 years in a U.S. prison, is up for release Sept. 9 and wants to come home. The United States wants him extradited to France to face further charges.

For most Panamanians, Noriega is the ghost of a dark past in a country that has moved on through three peaceful democratic elections, gained sovereignty over the Panama Canal and is earning $1.5 billion dollars a year from it — more than the 104-year-old waterway ever yielded in American hands.

Attention here is focused much less on Noriega’s fate than, for instance, on plans for a $5.25 billion expansion of the canal to handle modern container ships, cruise liners and tankers that are too large for its current 108-foot-wide locks.

That’s why most people in this nation of 3 million want to see Noriega stay in the past — and in prison. The question is, where?

A poll by Dichter & Neira Latin Research Network for La Prensa newspaper found 47 percent want him imprisoned in Panama and 44 percent want him sent to a third country. The poll of 1,218 persons had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

It was conducted July 6-8, before the United States officially announced plans to try to extradite Noriega to France to face charges of laundering about $3.15 million in drug profits by buying luxurious apartments in Paris.

Although President Martin Torrijos has said Noriega should face justice in Panama after his release from prison Sept. 9, neither he nor any other Panamanian is protesting the French option.

Some worry that Noriega has too much hidden money and too many hidden supporters in high places, and that the country’s court system, still fragile, won’t even be able to keep him behind bars.

Noriega’s opponents claim new laws are being tailored to protect him, although the government denies that.

Panamanian courts sentenced him in absentia to at least 60 years in prison for embezzlement, corruption and murder committed during his six-year dictatorship. But the law only allows him to serve a maximum sentence of 20 years and under legislation passed in January he could subtract his 18 years of U.S. prison time served.

It also allows anyone over 70 to seek house arrest rather than prison. Noriega is 72.

Another legal change is a ban on trials in absentia, which opens the door for Noriega to contest the convictions that got him his 60-year sentence.

“If Noriega returns to Panama, it’s certain the great number of ‘Noriegists’ that are in the government disguised as ministers, lawmakers, judges and prosecutors will want to do everything possible to ensure that Noriega doesn’t go to jail,” political science professor Miguel Antonio Bernal said.

Businessman Roberto Eisenmann, who founded La Prensa, Panama’s leading newspaper, and was among the military dictatorship’s biggest critics, says Noriega still has a “monstrous fortune hidden somewhere in the world.”

Elias Castillo, president of the Panamanian congress, recalls the power Noriega once commanded, and wonders what other dirty secrets may spill out if he comes back.

“On his birthday, we would all compete to see who would bring the general the biggest gift,” he said. “All of that is still there, but it is kept in a silent vault. It will all depend on whether Noriega stays silent or not.”

But Labor Minister Reynaldo Rivera argues that Noriega is a “relatively old man who no longer has a base of political support.”

Noriega’s 30-year sentence by a Miami court for drug trafficking has been reduced for good behavior. The former general and CIA operative says he’s a prisoner of war and must be sent home because the Geneva Conventions bar his extradition to a third country.

The United States and France disagree.

In the years Noriega was imprisoned, the old-guard politicians of the ruling party founded by Omar Torrijos, his one-time mentor, were voted out of power. The military was replaced by a national police force, and Mr. Torrijos’ son, Martin, who earned an economics degree at Texas A&M; University, worked to distance himself from the old dictatorship, noting he was in the United States at the time.

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