PANAMA CITY – PANAMA CITY (AP) — Relatives of people tortured and killed under former dictator Manuel Noriega are devastated at the prospect that he may serve out his days in a French prison instead of facing justice at home.
Most Panamanians, however, are increasingly indifferent to Noriega two decades after his dictatorship ended with a U.S. invasion, and the Washington-friendly government has made only mild appeals for his return.
"I wanted Noriega to come here and tell the truth and be condemned," said Patria Portugal, whose father disappeared in 1970 when Noriega was chief of intelligence during the dictatorship of Gen. Omar Torrijos.
Noriega, who seized power in 1981 after Torrijos died in an unexplained aircraft crash, is one of eight people charged with the murder of Portugal's father, a government opponent whose body was finally found 10 years ago buried in an old army barracks. The trial starts July 7.
Noriega has already been convicted in absentia and sentenced to 60 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, corruption and murdering opponents during his eight-year rule. Panama's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday night it would seek to extradite him from France to face those judgments as well as other charges pending against him.
After finishing a 20-year sentence in the United States for drug trafficking, Noriega was extradited to France this week to face money laundering charges. A French judge ordered him jailed Tuesday pending trial.
"We are losing hope with this," Portugal said. "I don't know what is more important for people: money laundering or justice for unresolved crimes against humanity."
Noriega wielded intimidating power in Panama for decades, building files on prominent Panamanians, developing close ties with U.S. intelligence and clamping down on critical news media for offenses as mild as personal insults. He allegedly had a stake in liquor stores, maritime services, banks, casinos, newspapers, a television station and 12 radio stations.
Nowadays, most Panamanians are happy to forget him. The country of 3 million people has settled into an era of relative political stability and economic development, with new skyscrapers constantly changing the face of the colonial capital. It has made $5 billion from the Panama Canal since the United States handed over the waterway a decade ago.
"I don't care if he goes to France or comes to Panama. He's an old man, he can hardly walk," said Carolina Gonzalez, a 22-year-old university student. "The damage is done and now the country thinks about other things."
Last year, Panamanians elected President Ricardo Martinelli, a conservative supermarket magnate who is one of the most U.S.-friendly leaders in Latin America. His government did not protest when the U.S. extradited Noriega to France.
Foreigner Minister Juan Carlos Varela said Monday the United States "made the sovereign decision to send him to France, and we respect that decision."
He added, however, that Panama would continue seeking Noriega's extradition, and his ministry made that official Tuesday, saying it would petition France to send him back.
It's what Noriega wants, too.
The former strongman pleaded before a French judge earlier in the day to be sent home, looking tired in a white button-up shirt and black jacket, his hair thinning.
Noriega's exact age is unclear: One biography says he was born in 1938, which would make him 72; other friends, media and biographies have put his current age at 74, 75 and 76. It also has been reported that as a youth, he fiddled with his official biography to make himself appear older so he could enter the military academy.
His daughter, Sandra Noriega, called his extradition to France a violation of her father's rights as a prisoner of war.
President George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops to invade Panama in 1989, months after Noriega abruptly annulled elections that had appeared to be going against him. After his capture, Noriega was classified as a prisoner of war, a status that allowed him to wear his military uniform to court appearances and live in his own suite in a prison near Miami, with television and exercise equipment.
His 40-year sentence for drug racketeering and money laundering was later shortened to 30 years, and he was set for release on good behavior in 2007.
But the U.S. held him pending extradition to France, where he could face another 10 years in prison if convicted on charges that he laundered $7 million in drug profits through French banks and purchased luxury apartments with his wife in Paris.
"He did a lot of harm in Panama and one of my wishes before I die is to see Noriega judged objectively and decently in Panama," said Guillermo Ford, who became vice president when Noriega was ousted. Ford was severely beaten by the dictator's supporters during the 1989 election campaign.