PARIS — A French court ruled Wednesday that former dictator Manuel Noriega can be extradited to Panama to serve time for past crimes, more than 20 years after being ousted and arrested in a U.S. invasion.
The elderly former Panamanian strongman hasn't seen his homeland in more than two decades, years he spent behind bars in Florida, on drug charges, and France, for money laundering.
Panama wants Noriega returned to serve prison terms handed down after he was convicted in absentia for embezzlement, corruption and murder. There's a chance that because of his age — he's in his 70s — he may get to serve out his time under house arrest.
The Paris appeals court announced its decision Wednesday after months of legal procedures around a man whose complicated past has kept judicial officials in three countries busy for years.
France's prime minister, Francois Fillon, now needs to sign an administrative decree allowing for Noriega to be transferred, possibly within days.
Friends and foes alike have feared that Noriega might die in a French prison — notably Panamanians who fought against human rights abuses during his 1983-1989 regime. They want to see him face justice at home.
Noriega, a one-time CIA asset who lorded over Panama from 1983 to 1989, turned into an embarrassment for the U.S. after he sidled up to Colombia's Medellin drug cartel and turned to crime.
In the waning days of the Cold War, Noriega was seen by U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration as a pivotal ally against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. But he eventually fell out with Washington.
In late 1989, U.S. President George H.W. Bush ordered an invasion to oust Noriega. The dictator holed up in the Vatican Embassy, and U.S. forces blasted it with incessant loud rock music until he surrendered in January 1990.
Taken to Miami, he was accused of helping the Medellin cartel ship tons of cocaine into the United States. Jurors convicted him in 1992 on eight of 10 charges, and he was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
After his U.S. sentence ended, he remained in legal limbo in Miami from 2007 to 2010, when France sought his extradition to face money laundering charges. He was convicted in Paris and sentenced to seven years behind bars.
In Panama, he is accused of murdering opponents including Moises Giroldi, a military commander who led a failed rebellion two months before the U.S. invasion, and Hugo Spadafora, whose decapitated body was found on the border with Costa Rica in 1985.
Panama's government and judicial authorities have been closely monitoring the French proceedings.
Noriega "is going to go to jail when he arrives in Panama," President Ricardo Martinelli has said, while adding "the law does say that a citizen who is over 70 years old can be granted the privilege of house arrest."
"That's not necessarily going to happen — but it's something the judge has to decide," Martinelli told reporters last week.
The extradition was rendered especially complex because the United States, as the country that authorized Noriega's initial transfer to France, had to give its consent for him to be shipped onward to Panama.
In the meantime, Noreiga has grown feeble, his lawyers say. Noriega's now in his 70s, though his exact age isn't clear.