Former dictator Manuel Noriega, above in 1990, is likely to be back in Panama… (U.S. district attorney's…)
Reporting from Paris — The last time he was in Panama, former dictator Manuel Noriega was being bombarded around the clock with deafening pop and heavy metal music as American troops tried to flush him out of the Vatican diplomatic mission where he had taken refuge.
Now, after more than two decades in prison in the United States and in France, the ex-general who ran the strategic Central American state with an iron fist between 1983 and 1989 is likely to be back home for Christmas after a Paris court on Wednesday approved his extradition.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon is expected to sign an administrative decree allowing Noriega to be transferred in the next few days.
He will return to Panama to face further charges and possibly more time in jail. In 1995 he was sentenced to 20 years in absentia for murdering political opponents in the 1980s.
Noriega, 77, was sentenced to seven years in jail by a French court last year for laundering more than $3 million in Colombian drug money in France during the 1980s. Before that, he had spent two decades in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking.
American troops invaded Panama in December 1989, and a separate operation was launched to prevent Noriega's escape. Navy SEALs destroyed his boat and jet and a $1-million reward was offered for his capture.
He took refuge in the Vatican diplomatic mission in Panama City, but after being bombarded with loud music he reportedly detested, he surrendered in January 1990 and was immediately flown to the U.S.
He completed his sentence on the U.S. charges in 2009 but was kept in prison as his lawyers unsuccessfully contested his extradition to France.
Last week, Panamanian Foreign Minister Roberto Henriquez said he believed Noriega would be back home "very soon … perhaps before Christmas." President Ricardo Martinelli has said it will be up to a judge to decide whether Noriega is sent to jail on his return or put under house arrest.
At an earlier hearing Noriega had told the judge, "I want to return to Panama to prove my innocence in the prosecutions held in my absence."
Willsher is a special correspondent.