Just days after the one-year anniversary of his conviction, an appeal panel in Nicaragua has ordered the release of a Tacoma man and University of Washington graduate who maintained for nearly two years that he was wrongly imprisoned in the country.
Jason Puracal, 35, was arrested in the resort village of San Juan del Sur on November 11, 2010. Along with 10 Nicaraguans, he was accused of operating a drug trafficking ring that brought cocaine up from Costa Rica.
On Aug. 29, 2011, Puracal was convicted of drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime. He was later sentenced to 22 years in a prison near the capitol city of Managua.
In early August, Puracal was granted the appeal hearing before a three-judge appellate panel in Granada. His attorney, Fabbrith Gomez, said the court vacated the charges against Puracal on Wednesday and ordered him released immediately.
U.S. Congressman Adam Smith of Washington, who had fought to have the Nicaraguan government review the case, called the ruling a "big relief."
"It took way, way too long," he said Wednesday. "There was never any evidence that should have got Jason arrested in the first place, much less incarcerated."
In recent months, the Nicaraguan government had been under increasing pressure to release Puracal.
In a letter sent to President Daniel Ortega in May, 43 members of U.S. Congress urged the leader to order an independent review of the case. Earlier, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Puracal's conviction was in violation of international law.
Last month, Puracal's sister said she was "cautiously optimistic" that the conviction would be overturned.
"The first thing he's going to want to do is come home and sleep in his warm bed, have a big meal with his family, and take a hot shower," Janis Puracal said. "We're going to want to take him out to some of his favorite restaurants and take him to see some of his best friends up here who are all waiting anxiously for him to come home."
Eric Volz, managing director of the David House Agency, released the following statement on behalf of the family Wednesday:
"The family is thrilled to hear the news that they are another huge step closer to bringing Jason home. There is one thing we have known all along over the past two years: Jason is innocent. The annulment of the oral and public trial is testament to this fact. From what we've heard, the order for his release has not yet been delivered to the prison but we expect it in the next 48 hours."
Court officials in Nicaragua were not immediately available to confirm the decision, but local media outlets confirmed reports in the American media.
Tim Rogers, editor of the Nicaragua Dispatch, filed this report late Wednesday:
"The judge's order to release Puracal will now go the Minister of the Interior, which controls the prison system. The execution of the judge's order could still take several days. In some cases, the Ministry of the Interior has been known to delay the execution of release orders for weeks or months.
Though there is a chance that Puracal could be released in the next 24 hours, it might be a slight chance as the government prepares to go on holiday Friday for a long weekend of Independence Day celebrations. On the other hand, the government might want to avoid any more bad international press by moving quickly to release Puracal before the weekend."
KIRO FM was the first American news agency to interview Puracal, and is the only agency to have secured an in-person interview.
On the first day of his trial in the town of Rivas, Puracal told KIRO FM his ordeal was like "something out of a movie."
"Anybody that's ever met me will tell you what kind of person I am and will tell you it's not in my nature," he said. "I wouldn't be involved with any of the things I'm accused of."
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.
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