Panama's ex-ruler Noriega returns home after 22 years

News / Panama's ex-ruler Noriega returns home after 22 years

Panama City (CNN) -- Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega arrived Sunday evening in his home country, nearly 22 years after U.S. forces forcibly removed him from office.

The 77-year-old was taken straight to El Renacer prison to serve time for crimes committed during his rule. Reporters flooded the medium-security facility in Gamboa, but the former leader was shielded from public view. Officials later confirmed that he was there.

Earlier, Noriega arrived at the Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, where security was tight.

"I think it has historic and symbolic significance," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue, about Noriega's return.

"It's a sense of closure for the Panamanian people. He clearly was a dictator for six years and presided over assassinations, disappearances and killing of opposition leaders. And so I think that it's something that was unfinished business and I think it's important for Panama to have a sense of closure," he said.

Noriega's extradition process began Sunday morning with a flight from Paris to Madrid. He was in Spanish police custody during a four-hour layover before leaving Madrid Sunday afternoon on a flight to Panama City, a spokesman for Spain's airport authority said.

Last month, a French court authorized his extradition to Panama, where officials want Noriega to face justice in the killings of Hugo Spadafora, his political opponent, and at least one other person. He was convicted in absentia.

Speaking outside of the prison complex in Gamboa, Noriega's attorney said his client deserves fair representation.

"He (Noriega) wanted to return to the country and face in this land the charges for which he was tried in absentia," attorney Julio Berrios told reporters.

"General Noriega is accused of having participated in three homicides. U.S. President George H.W. Bush invaded us and that cost 4,000 deaths. Has anybody said anything against Bush?" he said.

Noriega has been in France since 2010, after two decades in an American prison.

Authorities have strengthened security to guarantee his safety in Panama, according to Panamanian Foreign Minister Roberto Henriquez.