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Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is up for parole again. While the U.S. government continues to oppose it, this time the ex-general has the support of the federal judge who sentenced him. Senior U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler in Miami sentenced Gen. Noriega to 30 years in prison for racketeering, drug trafficking and money laundering in April 1992. But in a Feb. 20, 2004, letter to U.S. Parole Commission Chairman Edward F. Reilly Jr., Hoeveler backed the 70-year-old Noriega’s latest bid for release. “Since that time my impression of him based on information I have received has tempered my view and I think that, in light of his advancing age, he is a good candidate for parole,” Hoeveler wrote. “This would put him at 13 or 14 years and I believe that this amount of time should be adequate for his rehabilitation and release.” U.S. Parole Commission executive director Tom Hutchinson in Washington, D.C., said Tuesday that a parole decision in Noriega’s case had been made and an order was being prepared. He said it would be made public when it is finalized. Noriega, who was captured during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, is being held at the Federal Correctional Institution in southern Miami-Dade County. This is likely his final chance for early parole before his mandatory release in 2007 under sentencing rules in effect at the time of his offenses, according to his Miami attorney, Frank A. Rubino. In 1992, after sentencing the general, Hoeveler declared him to be a prisoner of war as defined by the Geneva Conventions. Hoeveler’s letter of support last month downplayed the risk that Noriega’s release from custody might destabilize Panama, which has turned toward democracy and free elections and has been relatively stable. Panama is holding a presidential election this year. “I am advised by his attorney that the general has no thoughts about involving himself further in politics,” Hoeveler wrote. “His only desire is to retire to his home and be with his grandchildren.” In his letter, Hoeveler also cited Noriega’s conversion to the Baptist denomination as a factor in his favor. “It has been reported to me that, while incarcerated, Gen. Noriega has frequently received the pastor who baptized him in the courthouse yard,” the judge wrote. AMERICA’S BEST FRIEND? On Feb. 18, a parole examiner held a hearing for Noriega at the prison. Richard Gregorie, the senior litigation counsel at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami who put together Noriega’s indictment in 1988, argued the government’s case against granting Noriega parole and allowing him to return to Panama. “My comment was that he would be a disrupting factor to the stability of that country if released,” Gregorie said in an interview. Rubino said his client, who’s still learning English, didn’t speak at the hearing. But Gregorie said Noriega did talk briefly. “The general said he was America’s best friend,” Gregorie said. The parole examiner, whose name was not available, announced at the end of the hearing that she would recommend to the commission that Noriega not be granted early parole, Gregorie said. Two parole examiners must agree before parole is granted or denied. A lone parole commissioner, acting on joint recommendation, makes the decision. That determination can be appealed to the full three-person commission. Judge Hoeveler sent his letter recommending early parole shortly after the start of a 21-day post-hearing period before the decision is finalized. That period expires Thursday. Rubino said Hoeveler’s letter gives Noriega a fighting chance to get out. “When the judge who sentences you wants you released, that’s pretty good,” he said. Still, Noriega faces long odds. The U.S. Parole Commission is part of the Department of Justice, which, under President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, has taken a tough line on sentencing and early releases. Four years ago, George H.W. Bush, who as president had ordered the invasion of Panama and Noriega’s arrest in 1989, sank a parole bid by Noriega by claiming he’d fear for his life if Noriega were released. The elder Bush and Noriega have a history going back to the 1970s, when Bush was director of the CIA and Noriega — then Panama’s intelligence boss — reportedly was snitching on the side for the CIA. This time, the former president was silent about Noriega’s parole request, both Gregorie and Rubino said. But the current Bush administration objected. “They said he shouldn’t be released because he may go back to Panama and reinsert himself in Panamanian politics and, who knows, he might even run for election down there,” Rubino said. “All he wants to do is sit in a rocking chair and enjoy his grandchildren.”

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