After 18 months of watching her brother atrophy physically and mentally in a Nicaraguan jail cell for crimes she claims he didn’t commit, Janis Puracal, the younger sister and legal representative of incarcerated Seattle native Jason Puracal, is pulling out all the stops for her sibling’s release.
On April 12, Puracal’s U.S. legal team filed a petition with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture alleging Jason is being “slowly starved to death by the Government of Nicaragua” and held in conditions akin to torture in La Modelo maximum-security prison.
The petition to the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights is the latest move in Puracal’s legal defense, which is quickly turning into an international cut-and-thrust offensive against Nicaragua’s judicial and penitentiary systems.
In recent weeks, Puracal’s case, which has made international headlines on the Today Show, CNN and Telemundo, was backed by advocacy groups The California Innocence Project and Change.org, where Jason’s petition has already generated more than 81,000 supporters—second only to the Trayvon Martin petition.
In addition, Puracal’s case is being championed by former U.S. DEA director Tom Cash, who helped prosecute Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, and Canada’s former Minister of Justice and Attorney General Irwin Cotler, who recently wrote a blistering letter to President Daniel Ortega calling Puracal’s “wrongful conviction” a “serious miscarriage of justice.”
“There is nothing ambiguous about the injustice that has been inflicted upon Mr. Puracal,” writes Cotler, a current member of Canadian Parliament. The letter, which urges Ortega to order an independent review of the case and immediately address Nicaragua’s squalid prison conditions, claims Jason’s case is “even more clear and compelling” than the half-dozen questionable convictions he ordered reviewed and eventually overturned as Attorney General of Canada.
From Peace Corps to penitentiary
A former Peace Corps volunteer who remained in Nicaragua afterwards to make a life for himself as a real estate agent in San Juan del Sur, Jason, 35, was sentenced last August—along with 10 other Nicaraguans—to 22 years in jail on charges of international money laundering, drug trafficking, and organized crime. His legal defense claims no specific evidence was presented against him in the group trail, “In spite of what authorities claim to be a three-year investigation.”
After more than six months of requesting an appeal for Jason’s case, the judge has yet to schedule a hearing.
“This has been a railroad job,” sister Janis Puracal told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a phone interview, as she prepared to return to Nicaragua this week to visit her brother and try to move his legal 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.”
Janis, who last week turned 33 and has spent the better part of two years working tirelessly on her brother’s legal defense at her Seattle law firm, has already convinced a lot of people in the U.S. that Jason was wrongly convicted. Their family’s public-relations campaign, launched through the website www.FreeJasonP.com, has been instrumental in raising awareness and defense funds.
But the prolonged battle to free Jason is sapping the family financially and emotionally.
“This has destroyed my family,” Janis says. “I can’t even explain to you what this does to your mind and emotional state every day when all you think about is whether your brother is going to die that day. It is an incredible nightmare for us; I know that my mom and my sister are struggling to survive every day because they don’t have what I have, which is the distraction of doing legal work all day long for Jason’s case.”
Recruiting Nicas to back UN petition
Though Jason’s case has made headlines in the United States, it has received less attention in the Nicaraguan media—nothing compared to the local coverage of the Eric Volz case, a grisly murder mystery that gripped the country in 2006-‘07.
That’s why Janis wants to enlist Nicaraguans who have family members in prisoner to support their petition with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
“I would hope that all the other families of inmates in La Modelo will back this complaint,” says Janis. “I am hoping to gather support from other families because I know they are suffering from the same thing that we are suffering from, which is fear for their loved one’s life.”
Janis says a month ago, exposed wiring in Jason’s cell sparked an electrical fire during lockdown, forcing the inmates to put out the flames on their own, without running water or a sprinkler system. She fears the decrepit conditions in La Modelo, built in 1958, could lead to a disaster similar to the recent prison fire in Honduras that killed 359 inmates.
Deplorable prison conditions
The deplorable prison conditions in La Modelo are further detailed in the petition before the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, which calls Nicaragua’s entire penitentiary system on the carpet.
“Mr. Puracal is currently sharing a 15’x15’ concrete cell with eight other men,” the petition reads. “There is no running water. The cell includes an area that is 3’x5’ with a hole in the ground that serves as not only a toilet, but also a sink, shower and area to wash dishes…The cell, including Mr. Puracal’s bed, is infested with ticks and ants.”
The conditions outside the cell are not much better, according to the petition.
“Mr. Puracal is allowed only two hours of sunlight once per week,” the petition reads. “However, the outdoor area to which he is taken shares space with an open sewer system, making the two-hour excursion unbearable.”
The conditions are unsanitary, inhumane and in violation of prisoners’ human rights, the petition concludes.
“This and other mistreatment constitutes cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, if not torture,” the petition asserts.
A recent investigative report by the daily La Prensa describes Nicaragua’s prisons as overcrowded and squalid dens of drugs, corruption and sexual violence.
But the government is so secretive about its prison conditions that no one really knows what’s going on inside. Wendy Flores, a lawyer for the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) who works on the issue of prisoners rights, says the Sandinista government has not allowed human rights workers inside the prisons for more than three years.
She says all the advocacy work her organization had done under the previous administration to improve prisoners’ rights and conditions has been undone by the current government.
“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,” Flores told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
The human-rights lawyer says CENIDH used to work directly with prison wardens, but the current government forbids the wardens or prison guards from talking to the press or human-rights workers. Now the prison system is run vertically and secretively under the complete subordination of the Ministry of the Interior, which is not legal, Flores says.
“We don’t know what the conditions are inside and we aren’t allowed to verify any of the allegations of human-rights abuses,” she says. “The lack of transparency, the lack of information and the lack of access leads us to presume that the measures used inside the prisons are more repressive. We have no confidence that human rights are being respected.”
Flores says CENIDH has also brought the attention to the UN Commissions on Human Rights and Torture, as well as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
If the UN’s Office of the High Commission for Human Rights gets involved, they could have more luck convincing the government to opens its prison gates.
“Under the usual procedures of the Special Rapporteur on Torture, an urgent cable will be sent to the Foreign Minister of Nicaragua by the Special Rapporteur explaining the allegations, urging the situation be rectified, and requesting a response from the Government. A summary of actions taken will be published in the Special Rapporteur’s annual report,” Jared Genser, Puracal’s lawyer in Washington, D.C., told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
Genser says the UN Special Rapporteur visits several countries each year to investigate prison conditions, and petitions of this kind inform his decision of what countries to visit.
In the meantime, Jason continues to waste away in La Modelo, where he spends most of the day hiding in his cell trying to survive, according to Janis.
“His mental health is severely declined,” Janis says. “In the beginning, he had a lot more hope and he, like all of us, believed it would be only a matter of days before he got out. 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.”
She adds sadly, “There is not a whole lot of mental stimulation in the prison, and I can just tell by some of the things that he is saying to people, that he’s not all there some times. He can’t remember words; he’s not making connections between things. It’s awful because Jason is an incredibly intelligent man, he’s very well educated and very well spoken and we have always prided ourselves on being more cerebral. Education has always been very important in our family, so it’s just awful to watch him decline like this.”