After a two-year legal nightmare that landed 35-year-old Jason Puracal, a U.S. citizen, in a Nicaraguan prison on what he says were baseless charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, a Nicaraguan appellate court found procedural flaws in a criminal trial that could have landed him in prison for 22 years, and ordered his release.
Puracal walked out of prison on Thursday and quietly slipped out of the country, fearing rearrest by prosecutors who were considering appealing the appellate court’s ruling, The Washington Post reported.
Lawyers, members of Puracal’s family, human rights advocates and U.S. politicians had pressured Nicaragua to release Puracal, who moved to Nicaragua as a Peace Corps volunteer, married a Nicaraguan woman and started a family. He worked as a real estate agent at the time of his arrest in 2010. He was held at La Modelo prison east of Managua, and suffered from malnutrition and health problems from conditions at the prison.
Ten Nicaraguan citizens also were arrested in the sweep.
Evidence presented by prosecutors in the drug trafficking trial against Puracal was weak, and his defense team was blocked from presenting evidence during the trial that would have demonstrated his innocence, his attorney said. A three-judge appeals court agreed and ordered his release on Wednesday.
Puracal left Nicaragua on Friday, but his family would not release details of when and how he left the country, Brad Chase, a spokesman for a crisis-management firm that has been helping Puracal’s family, told The Washington Post.
“The fight is not over until Jason actually is walking out of the prison and comes to the United States,” his sister, Janis Puracal, told the Post.
“Imagine how absurd this case is: Practically the entire proof against Jason is based on property titles from his office and receipts of property sales to foreigners in San Juan del Sur,” attorney Telma Vanegas told The Tico Times at the time of his arrest.
In the 2010 police sweep that netted Puracal, prosecutors based charges on the fact that he “kept cash from different countries, which is the modus operandi of someone with knowledge about the international and national finances involved in money laundering and organized crime.” During a raid on Puracal’s home in San Juan del Sur, on the southwestern Nicaraguan coast, police found $75 in U.S. currency, C$2,270 ($108) and one ₡1,000 note from Costa Rica ($2). The total amount of cash in Puracal’s possession was less than $200.
Raised in Tacoma, Washington, by parents of East Indian descent, Puracal went to the University of Washington and graduated with a double major in Zoology and Economics. He then joined the Peace Corps and came to Nicaragua in 2002 as part of the organization’s agricultural program.
After leaving the Peace Corps, Puracal moved to San Juan del Sur and got involved in the real estate market, eventually becoming a partner and then majority owner of the RE/MAX Horizons franchise.