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Panamanians balk at return of former dictator Noriega

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-08-05

French authorities have agreed to extradite former dictator Manuel Noriega (pictured) back to his home country, but Panamanians are struggling with his imminent return.

Francisco Bethancourt, a retired fisherman, doesn’t want former dictator Manuel Noriega to return to Panama. “I hope he dies in France. He did a lot of evil here,” the 77-year-old resident of Panama City states. In 1971 Francisco’s brother, Alcibiades “Chivale” Bethancourt, a young activist, was arrested by the police and never seen again. Their mother, Dominga Aparicio Bethancourt, went to the Cuartel Central, home to the infamous Panama Defense Forces and Noriega’s office, to ask the whereabouts of her missing son. She was ridiculed and ordered home.

News that France will extradite Noriega to Panama by October made headlines across the globe this week. He has served more than 22 years of jail time in both the US and France for drug trafficking and money laundering. Now the Central American country wants the former dictator to stand trial for murders and disappearances that happened while he was chief of military intelligence in the 1970s and the country’s de facto ruler for most of the 1980s.

“He needs to answer to the country and to the families of his victims,” said Honrado Sanjuro, a Catholic priest and the president of the Popular Committee for Human Rights (COPODEHUPA). “He cultivated terror, fear and persecution. Now he has to face the legal consequences in Panama”.

Rights groups like COPODEHUPA welcomed the former strongman’s extradition, but many in Panama doubt the historic homecoming is a real opportunity for justice or to heal old wounds.

Press reports in Panama have thus far focused on the special treatment that already awaits the former strongman and on whether they trust the justice system to do its job.

Article 107

Some outrage has been expressed over the special jail cell that has been fitted out for Noriega. It will be in the minimum-security El Renacer prison, and has received a fresh coat of paint and unspecified upgrades to accommodate the ailing 76-year-old.

Panama’s ombudsman, Patria Portugal, who ironically is the daughter of one of Noriega’s alleged victims, has opposed the special jail cell. She has also gone on the record to say that the former strongman will get a fair trial.

For victims’ families, however, the El Renacer jail cell and the eventual trial are not the problem.

It is widely known that he has long wanted to return to his home country. Many say that is because Noriega will essentially find freedom in Panama. “Here they will just let him go,” Francisco, the brother of the disappeared activist, worried.

His concern is not unfounded, despite the fact that Panamanian judges have already condemned Noriega in absentia to more than 60 years in prison for crimes against political opponents. Article 107 of Panama’s penal code says convicts who are over 70 can exchange jail cells for house arrest.

According to Sanjuro, Article 107 always “had Noriega’s name on it.” He says the law was crafted by the government of ex-president Martin Torrijos in large part to exonerate Noriega upon his eventual return.

Sanjuro shares the concerns that Noriega will spend his last days in the comfort of his own home, but is adamant about getting the former strongman into a Panamanian court. If Noriega lives to complete his current jail sentence in France in 2014 he will then be a free man, Sanjuro reminded.

A new country

Since US marines invaded Panama in 1989 to apprehend the dictator, the country has returned to democracy and experienced growth, even facing the 2008 economic crisis from a strong position, according to the IMF.

In an online poll by the leading daily La Prensa, more than three-quarters of participants said that Noriega’s extradition did not represent a threat to democracy in the country. Around 20 percent said he was a danger, with the rest of the respondents saying they did not know.

“What people care about it is their economic situation. The fear of being stopped by police no longer exists,” explained Franklin Hurtado, a businessman who runs a small building maintenance company. “Many young people don’t even know who Noriega is”, Hurtado explained.

While Noriega’s name remains synonymous with the all-powerful military and police that ruled Panama for two decades, few people still consider him a danger. But that offers little comfort to Francisco and his family.

Date created : 2011-08-04

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