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Nicaragua Jails American Without Trial: Incompetence or Conspiracy?

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"A Sandinista kangaroo court."

Jason Puracal with his family

American Citizen and former Peace Corps volunteer Jason Puracal remains imprisoned for his eighth month in Nicaragua on drug trafficking, money laundering, and organized crime charges, despite a legal requirement that trial begin within six months.

Puracal, who operated a local Re/Max real estate franchise in the town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, was arrested last November. Apart from the denial of his right to a trial under Nicaraguan law, a number of US officials, including a retired FBI agent, a Congressman, and the DEA, are casting major doubts over the legitimacy of the evidence gathered and the motivations behind the prosecution.

MarketWatch reports that Steve Moore, a retired FBI Agent, has his qualms with the case:

"Nothing supports the charges against Jason. On the contrary there are many irregularities that actually indicate he is being intentionally framed by authorities. The state department needs to step in before he is convicted and this escalates into the next American wrongfully-imprisoned overseas media frenzy."

Procedurally, the police in the Nicaraguan town of San Juan del Sur have made so many errors it is raising suspicions of a cover-up. The details of the case are laid out here in the Tico Times, but they include the following: a few hundred dollars found in several currencies at his residence -- which the police believe is somehow evidence of money laundering activity; trace amounts of cocaine were allegedly found on the steering wheel of his car; the trace chemical test seems to be the only evidence the Nicaraguan authorities have of drug involvement, and that test itself (which doesn't prove drug trafficking anyway) may have been tainted.

Fortunately for Puracal and his family, Congressman Adam Smith of Washington has taken up his cause. Rep. Smith gave this press release, and is actively lobbying the US State Department to become more involved in securing Puracal's release, or at least improving his living conditions. The press release contained strong criticism of Nicaragua's handling of the case:

"Jason Puracal was arrested on drug trafficking charges in Nicaragua on November 11, 2010. In the nearly six months Mr. Puracal has been behind bars, the Nicaraguan authorities have presented no evidence linking him to any crime. There are also disturbing reports of Mr. Puracal being mistreated and denied medical care while in jail."

Even the appointment of the judge set to preside over Puracal's has caused outrage. Puracal's defense attorney, Fabbrith Gomez, confirmed that the judge appointed to take over the trial in this delayed case is neither an attorney, nor is his appointment legal under the Nicaraguan Constitution. The judge was sworn in without Supreme Court Approval, "by a magistrate who had no official authorization to do so. We fear Narvaez was sent to convict Jason," says Gomez.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has apparently provided written confirmation to Congressman Smith denying any involvement in the case, which some are pointing to as another indicator that the Nicaraguan government is framing an innocent American.

Puracal himself believes that the case against him is part of a Sandinista political conspiracy, involving a land grab and a vendetta against opposition political figures to the ruling party. Puracal is  a minority owner – less than 5 % – in “Finca Las Nubes,” a sustainable farm outside of San Juan del Sur, and another farm, “Finca Petén,” in Jinotega, but he is listed as a company officer for the two farms. Puracal told The Nica Times that his connection to the two farms is a focus of the police during questioning, which makes him think some sort of political  land grab is in play in advance of elections.

Currently, Puracal is in La Modelo maximum security prison in Tipitapa. His daily conditions are  poor, his family says he has been denied medical care and food, and his life may be in danger.

Nicaraguan police today confirmed that a drug trafficker one cell away from Puracal  was murdered, and the price paid for his life was allegedly $2,000,000. The assassin committed the crime with a 9mm pistol that had been smuggled into the prison.

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