February 14, 2007 / 5:08 PM / 12 years ago

Panama to jail ex-leader Noriega if he returns home

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama will throw former military leader Manuel Noriega in jail if he tries to return home after leaving a U.S. prison later this year, the government said on Wednesday.

A September 9 release date has been set for Noriega, who was captured by U.S. forces after the 1989 invasion of Panama and then jailed in Florida on charges that he let Colombian traffickers use Panama as a transit hub for U.S.-bound drugs.

His lawyer says Noriega, 70, wants to go home at the end of his 15 years behind bars to enjoy time with his grandchildren and fight a murder conviction against him.

“His whole life is in Panama and obviously he wants to return to Panama,” attorney Frank Rubino said, adding that Noriega is healthy and in good spirits.

Noriega was convicted in absentia by Panama’s courts for murder, and Justice Minister Olga Golcher said his reception might not be the one he hopes for.

“On entering the country and as a convict, he is immediately put at the order of the prison system,” Golcher told journalists.

She said Panama requested Noriega’s extradition from the United States in 1991 but was never given a reply.

“If the United States concedes it, we would have to take the corresponding measures to take charge of the detainee. If they decide to deny it, the United States will have to see if it keeps him in the country and under what status, or if he goes to a third country.”

Noriega, who was Panama’s ruler from 1983 to 1989, wants to challenge his conviction in Panama for the 1985 torture-slaying of Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and journalist who was one of his most vocal critics. Noriega was convicted in absentia to 20 years in prison.

“He will move to reopen that case so he can clear himself,” his lawyer Rubino said.

U.S. forces invaded Panama late in 1989 to capture Noriega, a one-time ally turned foe. He holed up in the Vatican mission in Panama City before giving himself up on January 3, 1990.

He was convicted in a Miami federal court in 1992 of trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy. The original sentence was for 40 years but it was reduced to 30 years and he has been granted additional breaks for good behavior and time served.

Noriega was granted prisoner-of-war status and has served most of his time in a specially built 250-square-foot (23-square-metre) cell dubbed the “presidential suite.”

Additional reporting by Jim Loney in Miami

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