Family asks UN to help free former Peace Corps volunteer jailed in Nicaragua

Of the 725 US citizens in jail abroad, more than half are behind bars in Latin America. Jason Puracal was imprisoned in November 2010, and his family says the US hasn't done enough in his case.

By , Correspondent

After 18 months of watching her brother languish in a Nicaraguan prison cell on what many say are questionable drug charges, Janis Puracal, the younger sister and legal representative of Jason Puracal, is pulling out all the stops for his release.

Last week, Mr. Puracal’s legal team alleged Jason is being “slowly starved to death by the Government of Nicaragua” and subject to “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, if not torture,” in a petition filed with the United Nations’s Special Rapporteur on Torture.

The family's petition to the UN is the latest move in a case that is quickly turning into an international offensive against Nicaragua’s judicial and penitentiary systems.

The defense claims that Puracal – who stayed in Nicaragua after his 2-years of Peace Corps service to sell beach real estate for Remax, get married, and start a family – was wrongfully convicted of international money laundering, drug trafficking, and organized crime. Puracal, who was convicted last August along with 10 Nicaraguans, was allegedly involved in “national and international transactions using a great amount of money without justification to buy and sell property, especially in the departments of Rivas and Granada,” according to state prosecutors. The defense claims there’s nothing illegal about that – it’s just what realtors do.

The combination of charges landed the 35-year-old Seattle native behind bars for 22 years, with no set date for an appeal hearing.

“This has been a railroad job,” says Janis Puracal, who was in Nicaragua this week to visit her brother in jail and try to push his case forward. “This is so clear to everyone, and still Jason is dying in prison. That is the frustrating part to me; I don’t know how much more I need to do to convince people that Jason needs to go home.”

Mr. Puracal is not the only American to get into trouble in the tropics. Of the 725 US citizens in jail overseas, more than half, 393, are behind bars in Latin America, according to the State Department’s most recent statistics. That number could be much higher, since not everyone informs the US consulate when they’ve been arrested abroad.

Some believe “Uncle Sam” can swoop in and save them when they’re caught up in foreign mischief, but the US consulate’s role is decidedly less Hollywood.

“Our role in an arrest case is to ensure that the individual is not being singled out for mistreatment as a US citizen and that the conditions of his or her incarceration meet international standards,” says a State Department official. “We conduct routine prison visits to ensure the US citizen is in good health, we facilitate communication between the prisoner and his and her family, and we make sure the prisoner has access to legal representation if he or she chooses.”

In Puracal’s case, the family thinks the embassy hasn’t done enough, given Jason’s conditions. After developing serious intestinal problems from the prison food – twice-daily rations of rice and beans – Jason, who has lost 30 pounds, has become dependent on his wife’s family bringing him food from the outside, which he tries to eat or squirrel away before it's stolen by other prisoners.

So now they’ve turned to others for help, including Eric Volz, a Tennessee man who spent a year in the same Nicaraguan prison for allegedly killing his Nicaraguan ex-girlfriend in 2006. Mr. Volz had witnesses and time-stamped cell phone calls proving he was two hours away in Managua the day Doris Ivania Jiménez was found raped and murdered in the back of her clothing boutique in San Juan del Sur. The case was overturned in an appeal in late 2007, and Volz returned to the US, where he wrote a book about his ordeal and became managing director of the Los Angeles-based David House Agency, an international crisis resource group that’s handling Puracal’s case.

“One of the most common mistakes families make is to put all their faith in the US consulate at the time of arrest, when the truth is that US personnel rarely fix these types of problems,” Volz said in an email. “Families sit and wait for [the] US government to intervene, losing valuable time that results in longer prison stays.”

He says the key to mounting an effective international defense strategy is to quickly assemble a “strategic team of experts in legal, diplomatic, private, and, when appropriate, communications and PR efforts.”

But that kind of approach is easier said than done. Volz’s own defense strategy was a messy process of fits and starts. From that personal experience, however, he learned that in Nicaragua, a loud international PR campaign and pressure on the government works. Puracal’s defense strategy is starting to look similar.

Volz and former DEA director Tom Cash, who helped prosecute Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, recently co-authored a Change.org petition on Puracal’s behalf. They argue “not one shred of evidence was found linking him to any of these illegal activities” and that the prosecution’s own witnesses exculpated Jason when a police officer testified on the stand that they never recovered any drugs in Jason’s possession. In less than two weeks, it has received more than 82,000 signatures, generating the same amount of letters to US and Nicaraguan authorities.

In recent weeks, the family’s media offensive has included interviews on the Today Show and CNN. They have recruited high-profile support from the California Innocence Project and former Nelson Mandela defense counsel Irwin Cotler. Mr. Cotler, a former Minister of Justice in Canada, wrote a blistering letter to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega last month calling Puracal’s case a “serious miscarriage of justice.”

Ms. Puracal says she feels it’s her family’s duty to wage this battle, not only for Jason, but for all other Nicaraguan inmates who are in the same situation, but don’t have the same resources to push back.

Wendy Flores, a lawyer for the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), says the Sandinista government has not allowed human rights workers inside the prisons for more than three years.

“For three years we have been requesting access to the prisons for specific cases or for general observation, but the government has ignored all our requests,” Ms. Flores said.  “We don’t know what the conditions are inside and we aren’t allowed to verify any of the allegations of human-rights abuses. We have no confidence that human rights are being respected.”

Puracal, meanwhile, spends most of his time hiding in his 15-square-foot concrete cell, which he shares with eight other men. His family says his cell has no running water, is infested with ticks and ants, and has a hole in the floor that serves as a toilet and sink. Still, Ms. Puracal says her brother feels safer in his cell than interacting with other prisoners.

“In the beginning, Jason had a lot more hope and he, like all of us, believed it would be only a matter of days before he got out,” she says. “But over time, I can tell that the burden and anxiety has weighed on him. He has developed severe depression and his mind is turning to mush.”

– A version of this article appears on the author’s website, www.nicaraguadispatch.com

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