updated 3/11/2004 10:42:06 AM ET 2004-03-11T15:42:06

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was denied early release from prison, despite a letter from a federal judge saying the 70-year-old former general has spent enough time behind bars.

The U.S. Parole Commission decided last week to deny Noriega’s request for parole, Tom Hutchinson, the commission’s executive director said Wednesday.

Noriega’s attorney, Frank Rubino, said he would appeal. Because of good behavior in prison, Noriega’s mandatory release is scheduled for 2007.

Miami-based U.S. District Court Judge William Hoeveler, who sentenced Noriega for his 1992 drug trafficking conviction, said Noriega is a converted Baptist who frequently sees the pastor who baptized him, according to the Feb. 20 letter to parole officials.

Hoeveler had originally sentenced Noriega to 40 years in prison, but in 1999 reduced his sentence by 10 years, saying the original sentence was too harsh. Noriega is serving his time in a Miami federal prison.

Hoeveler also said Noriega’s lawyer told him the former dictator has no desire to return to politics. “His only desire is to retire to his home and be with his grandchildren,” Hoeveler wrote.

At a Feb. 18 parole hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Gregorie said freeing Noriega would destabilize Panama, which has enjoyed a stable government since a U.S. invasion ousted Noriega in 1989.

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