Thursday, July 1, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Panama Murder Trial To Open -- Noriega Among 10 Defendants In 1985 Slaying


PANAMA CITY, Panama - Hugo Spadafora had a most unusual career: He was a doctor, a rebel, a fighter of rebels, a Panamanian government official, a crusader against government corruption.

His end was spectacular - a headless corpse in a mail sack in the jungle.

After eight years, the trial of his accused killers, including former Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, is to begin next Tuesday. Noriega, who is serving a 40-year sentence in the U.S. for drug trafficking, will be tried in absentia.

The trial promises to resurrect some of the more controversial moments of Panama's painful past.

Spadafora was an outspoken enemy of Noriega, whom he accused of trafficking in weapons and drugs, of planning a dictatorship and of plotting the death in a plane crash of populist dictator Gen. Omar Torrijos in 1981.

He had been quoted as saying he hoped his next fight would be against the Panamanian military.

Attempts to investigate Spadafora's 1985 death resulted in the military, then headed by Noriega, forcing the resignation that year of President Nicolas Ardito Barletta.

Noriega took over the military and, in effect, the government, in 1983. His seven-year regime led to a strangling U.S. trade embargo, international scorn and eventually a humiliating U.S. invasion in 1989 in which he was captured.

The trial over Spadafora's murder will be held in the city of David in Chiriqui province near the Costa Rican border.

Spadafora graduated from medical school in Italy in 1964 and was a volunteer doctor for rebels in independence movements in Africa for the next two years.

Later, in Panama, he tended wounded rebels in the urban fights that arose after the military kicked out President Arnulfo Arias in 1968.

The same military named him vice minister of health in the late 1970s, but in 1978 he organized the volunteer Victoriano Lorenzo Brigade to fight the Sandinistas in Nicaragua's revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza a year later.

In 1985 he returned to Nicaragua to fight the Sandinistas, who lost power in elections in 1990.

According to court papers Spadafora, then 43, was returning home by bus Sept. 13, 1985, crossing into Panama from Costa Rica.

Witnesses said he was taken from the bus by Panamanian soldiers. His body was found the next day on the Costa Rican side of the border.

Initially, 23 military men were accused, but only 10 will go on trial next Tuesday, facing the possibility of Panama's maximum sentence, 20 years in prison, said Carlos Augusto Herrera, who is prosecuting the case.

"For us the start of the trial signifies the last phase in the long and painful road that began Sept. 13, 1985, with the vile and cowardly assassination of Hugo," said Winston Spadafora, Hugo's brother, a lawyer who is Noriega's formal accuser.

Noriega has asked the U.S. and Panama to return him to his homeland to take part in the trial but predicted it would not happen because "the government of President Guillermo Endara is afraid of the truth."

Noriega claims he was in France when Spadafora was killed.

Noriega refused to order an investigation despite requests.

Winston Spadafora said that when Barletta tried to form such a commission the military ousted him two weeks after the body was found. Barletta was one of a string of several presidents installed and dumped by Noriega.

After the invasion the Endara government appointed a commission to investigate the case and named a special prosecutor to handle it.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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