Panama's government said Wednesday the long-awaited extradition of former dictator Manuel Noriega is one step closer to reality after a French court said it received U.S. approval to send Noriega home to face a 20-year prison sentence here.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that U.S. approval was needed to return Noriega to Panama because the United States originally extradited him to France, where he was sentenced to seven years for money laundering.
The statement said the French court announced that it had received the U.S. approval.
The ex-dictator's defense lawyer said Noriega could be sent to Panama by Christmas. But lawyer Julio Berrios said a Nov. 23 hearing could find that France must reissue the extradition decree it originally issued in July and that could delay the extradition beyond Christmas.
During his 1983-89 turn as Panama's president, Noriega ruled with an iron fist, ordering the deaths of those who opposed him.
Then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush ordered an invasion in December 1989 to oust Noriega. He was captured and taken to Miami to face drug trafficking charges.
U.S. prosecutors said Noriega helped Colombia's Medellin cartel ship tons of cocaine into the United States. Jurors convicted him in April 1992 of eight of 10 charges, and he was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
After his U.S. sentence ended in 2007, Noriega was extradited to France, where he was sentenced to seven years in prison for money laundering.
Panama wants Noriega returned to serve two prison terms of 20 years handed down after convictions in absentia. He was convicted of embezzlement, corruption and murdering opponents, including military commander Moises Giroldi, who led a failed rebellion two months before the U.S. intervention, and Hugo Spadafora, an opponent whose decapitated body was found on the border with Costa Rica in 1985.
Noriega still faces murder charges in the killing of an opposition leader in the 1970s, but France denied an extradition request on that count.