By Sean Mattson
GAMBOA, Panama (Reuters) - Manuel Noriega, Panama's drug-running military dictator of the 1980s, was extradited back to the country on Sunday and taken straight to prison to serve a 20-year sentence for the murders of opponents during his rule.
Noriega, now 77, was toppled in a U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 and has spent the last two decades behind bars, first in Florida and then in France after being convicted for drug trafficking and money laundering.
Accompanied by Panama's attorney general and a doctor, he was extradited from France to Panama on a commercial flight and flown in a helicopter to the outskirts of a jungle-surrounded penitentiary beside the Panama Canal.
The former strongman arrived at the prison in a police convoy and was whisked into the building in a wheelchair. About half an hour earlier, another convoy had arrived with a wheelchair-bound passenger in an apparent decoy maneuver.
"We had to be sure of his security," Interior Minister Roxana Mendez told reporters outside the prison. The doctor who accompanied Noriega on the plane said he was suffering from hypertension and could not walk unassisted.
Noriega did not speak to waiting media, but Reuters photographs showed him at the prison reception area, in a wheelchair and wearing a red shirt.
A physically diminished shadow of the man once known for waving a machete while delivering fiery speeches, Noriega's return is unlikely to have a major political impact on a country that has enjoyed an economic boom in recent years.
Widely reviled when he was Panama's de facto leader from 1983 until 1989, his small cadre of remaining supporters has kept a low profile and even bitter opponents dismiss Noriega as part of a distant, shadowy past.
Much of the focus on Noriega will be on whether he sheds any light on the dictatorship's mysteries, including some 100 unsolved killings or disappearances in the period of army rule from 1968 to 1989.
Noriega was convicted in absentia in three homicide cases involving 11 murders, including the 1985 beheading of Hugo Spadafora, a physician who threatened to reveal Noriega's drug ties, and the 1989 execution-style slaying of nine officers who staged a failed coup.
Sentenced to 20 years in each case, he will serve the terms concurrently. Official photographs of the facility prepared for him at the El Renacer prison showed a spartan, beige-painted cell with a bathroom, table and small bed.
Noriega will also face charges over the 1970 murder of Heliodoro Portugal, an opponent of Panama's military leaders.
"We hope he talks and says where the rest of the disappeared are, what happened to those who were killed," said Portugal's daughter, Patria Portugal.
Noriega qualifies for house arrest due to his age but the decision rests with the government. His lawyer, Julio Berrios, said house arrest would also imply an acceptance of his sentence and mean Noriega could not launch a legal challenge.
Leaders of a civilian movement that protested Noriega's regime in the late 1980s urged the government to keep him in prison, equating house arrest with virtual freedom.
"People who have ... been accused and sentenced for killing people have to serve their sentences, independently of their age," said Aurelio Barria, a businessman who spent the last years of Noriega's rule in exile in fear for his life.
Originally a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) protege, Noriega fell out with Washington over his ties to Colombian drug traffickers and his rigging of elections.
The U.S. invasion in December 1989 came soon after a botched coup that the United States could have used to capture
Noriega, who was briefly held by rebel officers.
His return stirs bitter memories for many Panamanians who suffered under his regime or lost family in the invasion.
"All of Panama was happy when he left," said Osvaldo Quintero, 37, who lives by Noriega's dilapidated mansion in the upscale San Francisco neighborhood and says neighbors oppose his return to the house.
Once the site of parties for high-ranking members of Panama's now-disbanded armed forces, the mansion is crumbling, with neighbors complaining of squatters, rats and mosquitoes.
"For those who have lived here for a long time (Noriega) brings bad memories. It was a political era of this country that we want to forget," said Quintero.
But some miss the security that came with Noriega's iron hand, for example in the El Chorrillo district which was the base for Noriega's central command and has since disintegrated into a gunfire-punctuated gangland chaos.
"Noriega had absolute control of Panama," said Cesar Duran, outside his parked taxi that sports a Noriega sticker on the rear beside the Spanish word for freedom. "We knew he was a dictator ... but there was much more security than now."
(Additional reporting by Lucien Libert and John Irish in Paris and Veronica Gomez in Mexico City; Editing by Sandra Maler)