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Prison security stepped up on eve of Noriega return to Panama

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:36 PM EST, Sat December 10, 2011
Police in Panama City pass next to a street vendor's stand decorated with pictures and articles of Manuel Noriega on Friday..
Police in Panama City pass next to a street vendor's stand decorated with pictures and articles of Manuel Noriega on Friday..
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The former strongman is expected to arrive in Panama late Sunday afternoon
  • Panamanian officials want him to face justice there
  • The former dictator has been convicted of crimes in the United States and France

Panama City (CNN) -- His fate uncertain, Manuel Noriega is being returned Sunday to Panama, nearly 22 years after the former dictator was forcibly removed from office by U.S. forces.

Now 77, Noriega is being extradited this weekend from France, which got Noriega in April 2010 after he spent two decades in an American prison.

Panamanian officials want him to face justice in the case of the killing of Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and political opponent of Noriega. Noriega was convicted in absentia of being involved with the kidnapping and killing of Spadafora in 1985.

After a stop in Spain, Noriega is expected to arrive late Sunday afternoon in Panama City.

For almost two decades, Noriega was a major player in a country of critical regional importance to the United States because of its location on the Panama Canal, a key strategic and economic waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on the narrow isthmus linking the Americas.

While in U.S. custody, Noriega suffered from prostate cancer and had a stroke.

Authorities have strengthened security to guarantee Noriega's safety in prison, Panamanian Foreign Minister Roberto Henriquez said.

"We have to be ready for all the possibilities in all aspects. Noriega inspires very big emotions, and Noriega's life could very well be at risk in Panama," Henriquez said.

Judicial officials in Panama will determine whether Noriega can stand trial, Henriquez said.

Interior Minister Roxana Mendez said Noriega will receive the same treatment as other inmates at the Renacer prison complex.

"The Panamanian state has no special consideration when it comes to him serving his sentence inside the prison complex," Mendez said. "However, based on our laws, and if there's a valid request from his attorneys, they can ask that he be transferred from the prison to house arrest if the inmate's health is in jeopardy or if the inmate, being over 70 years old, may face risks inside the prison complex."

Last year, a French court sentenced Noriega to seven years in prison for laundering money through French banks. He also was fined almost 2.3 million euros ($2.9 million), the amount of drug money he was accused of laundering through French banks.

Panama prepares for Noriega's return

Noriega denied the charges.

During the trial, defense lawyer Yves Leberquier tried to paint Noriega as the victim of larger geopolitical forces, accusing the United States of placing and moving pawns to serve its interests.

The U.S. government has portrayed Noriega as the ultimate crooked cop -- a man who was paid millions by the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia to protect cocaine and money shipments. He was convicted of drug trafficking and other crimes in the United States.

Born in 1934, Noriega was abandoned by his parents at the age of 5 and raised by an aunt in a rundown district of Panama City. After failing to get into medical school, Noriega joined the army, studying at Peru's Military Academy of Chorrillos and quickly rising through the ranks.

In the 1970s he served as head of military intelligence to Gen. Omar Torrijos, who had seized power in a military coup in 1968. Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981, and Noriega emerged as his de facto successor. By 1983 he controlled both Panama's armed forces and civilian government.

In 1988 Noriega was indicted in the United States on charges of racketeering, laundering drug money and drug trafficking. He was accused of having links to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar's notorious Medellin cartel and, in the process, amassing a multimillion-dollar fortune.

Amid growing unrest in Panama, U.S. President George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion of Panama in December 1989, claiming that Noriega's rule posed a threat to U.S. lives and property. Noriega fled his offices and tried to seek sanctuary in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City.

U.S. troops set up large speakers around the compound, blaring music at all hours, a psychological ploy to rattle the general.

He surrendered in January 1990 and was quickly escorted to the United States for civilian trial.

During his 2010 trial in France, Noriega said, "I received high praise from the U.S., Interpol and other countries who all benefited from my fight against drugs."

CNN's Rafael Romo contributed to this report.

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