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. His lawyer said he could be in Panama as soon as Thursday.
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.
"God Bless you," Noriega told the French appeals court that announced the extradition approval Wednesday. "God bless my family, God bless my enemies, God bless France."
"I want to return to Panama and prove my innocence," he said, through an interpreter.
The decision comes after months of legal procedures focused on 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.
"If Panama wants to do this very quickly, it will send a military plane, and as of tomorrow night, he could be in Panama City," Olivier Metzner, a lawyer for Noriega, told reporters in Paris Wednesday.
Panama's Foreign Secretary Roberto Henriquez told a news conference in Panama later Wednesday that five Panamanian officials — guards, foreign ministry employees and a doctor — will travel to France to bring back Noriega. He said Panama expects Noriega will return in tourist class on a commercial flight.
Henriquez said appropriate security measures would be taken. "He is a highly sensitive prisoner ... he has both followers and adversaries."
"We will take measures to ensure the physical welfare of Noriega ... during the transfer and upon his arrival in Panama," he said. In an apparent reference to Noriega's health, Henriquez said "We must not forget that this is a prisoner with special conditions."
Friends and foes alike 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, Noriega has grown feeble, his lawyers say. His exact age isn't clear.
In Panama, political analyst Jose Blandon said Noriega has to come home "to ask for forgiveness to the people for the things he did. He is an old man with serious health problems, but he has to face justice."
Sociologist Marco Gandasegui said that Noriega's return is a step forward for the country to finish processing that period in the country's history.
"Noriega's return will probably have more meaning emotionally than politically," he said. "Emotionally in the sense that we will be able to put into balance what happened 22 years ago (the U.S. invasion), politically I doubt the ex-general could have an impact since now Panamanians have other worries."
Associated Press writer Juan Zamorano contributed from Panama City.