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Panamanians 'relieved' by Noriega's sentence, president says

PANAMA CITY, Panama -- The people of Panama 'received with feelings of relief' the 40-year prison sentence handed down Friday by a U.S. court against former ruler Gen. Manuel Noriega, Panamanian President Guillermo Endara said.

The former Panamanian ruler was convicted in April on eight counts of racketeering, conspiracy and importing and distributing cocaine. U.S. troops invaded Panama in December 1989, seized Noriega, and installed Endara.

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The sentence 'closes forever a painful chapter in our country's history,' Endara told United Press International in a telephone interview. 'This proves again that crime does not pay, and that sooner or later justice will be done.'

'The people of Panama have received with feelings of great relief the news from the federal court in Miami,' he said.

Hundreds of people celebrated the sentence Friday evening, with scores of women, doning white scarves like the ones used in civilian protests against the Noriega regime, marching in downtown Panama City.

Pedestrians waving white handkerchiefs and motorists rythmically honking their horns paraded in joyful motorcades along 50th Street.

People interviewed in the street said Noriega should have received an even harsher sentence because his regime left the country in ruins.

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'This experience should teach a lesson for present and future generations of Panamanians,' Endara said. 'We must remember it only to abhor it. We all must keep vigilant to prevent a repetition of this tragedy in our land. We must do it, promoting the moral values and ethical principles that were trampled by a gang of criminals who abused power, and the rights of Panamanians.'

Noriega will be tried in abscence in Panama on alleged crimes against the people and the state, Attorney General Rogelio Cruz said.

The former chief of Panama's now-defunct Defense Forces Guard cannnot be prosecuted in his country after serving a 40-year sentence in the United States, Cruz said, but 'he can be tried before, and that is what we will do.'

Lawyers defending Noriega had requested that the former strongman be tried in his own country, but 'we don't need them to request that because that is what we are working at,' the official said.

'Panama's law provides for trial in absence and we have been preparing all the records,' he said. 'I am sure that soon (Noriega) will be prosecuted in Panama for a number of crimes.'

Besides the drug charges that led to his conviction before a U.S. court, Noriega has been accused in Panama of responsibility in the disappearance of a Colombian Catholic Priest, Hector Gallego; the beheading of a guerrilla, Dr. Hugo Spadafora; and the shooting of 10 Defense Forces officers who rebelled against Noriega in 1989.

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The sentencing coincided with the fifth anniversary of the so-called 'Black Friday' in 1987 when Defense Forces troops shot bullets, pellets and tear gas at demonstrators marching along the Via Espana Avenue.

'Justice, the justice we have fought for so long, is finally dawning in the country, and it dawns on the anniversary of Black Friday,' said Panama's First Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon, leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party.

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