Panama City – Former strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was extradited from France, has started serving more than 60 years in prison in Panama, with officials assigning him to a common cell.
The 77-year-old Noriega, who was captured by the U.S. Army after the 1989 invasion of Panama by the United States, arrived in his homeland around 6:07 p.m. on Sunday aboard an Iberia Airlines flight.
Noriega was flown by helicopter to a heliport near El Renacer, a maximum-security prison located in a jungle area on the shores of the Panama Canal.
The former strongman was driven in an SUV to the prison gate, helped into a wheelchair and taken inside as various officials watched.
Officials had brought a person covered with a cloak into the prison a short time before, throwing off the dozens of Panamanian and foreign reporters, cameramen and photographers who had been awaiting the general's arrival.
The measure was taken to ensure Noriega's safety, Government Minister Roxana Mendez said.
Prison officials brought Noriega out briefly, but he was kept at a distance from reporters and the public.
President Ricardo Martinelli had said in a Twitter posting that he had given instructions that the former strongman be shown to the public.
Noriega was rolled out into the prison reception area in his wheelchair, chatted briefly with prison bureau director Angel Calderon and several other people, and was then taken inside the prison.
Calderon cited the recommendations of Noriega's doctor and the former strongman's long trip to justify the brief appearance.
"That is the closest we could go with him," Calderon told reporters.
Officials also wanted to respect the wishes of Noriega, who "did not want to be part of a media circus," Mendez said.
Noriega does not have 100 percent ability to function on his own, has difficulty getting around, had a cerebral hemorrhage and is not in condition to be shackled, Dr. Jorge Yerwood, who examined the former general on arrival at the prison, said.
Relatives of Noriega's victims staged a peaceful protest as he was being transported to the prison, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Panama City.
The area where the prison is located was controlled by the United States during Noriega's time in power from 1983 to 1989.
The former strongman arrived in Madrid at 9:50 a.m. Sunday on an Iberia flight from Paris with six Interpol agents and his personal physician.
The Iberia flight from Madrid to Panama City was delayed for nearly 80 minutes, but the carrier did not say why.
Noriega, according to Panamanian officials, must serve six sentences totaling 67 years.
The former strongman was found guilty of the murders of guerrilla physician Hugo Spadafora and Maj. Moises Giroldi, the Albrook massacre, depriving Maj. Humberto Macea of his freedom, corruption and embezzlement.
Noriega asked to be extradited to Panama to face the charges against him.
Under Panamanian law, prisoners age 70 or older can be allowed to serve their sentences under house arrest.
Noriega served 20 years in prison in the United States on drug trafficking charges before being extradited to France in 2010, where he was sentenced to seven years behind bars for money laundering.
The former strongman surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990, to the U.S. troops who had invaded Panama the previous month, ending the military dictatorship established in 1968 by Gen. Omar Torrijos (1929-1981).