MANAGUA—After 22 months of fighting tirelessly for her brother’s release, Janis Puracal, the younger sister and legal representative of incarcerated U.S. citizen Jason Puracal, is guardedly optimistic that justice will finally be served.
Janis was notified yesterday in Managua that her brother’s appeals hearing has finally been set for Aug. 16, almost a year after Jason was convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison on charges of money-laundering, organized crime and drug trafficking.
For Janis, the sudden court date for an appellate hearing—something the defense team first requested 11 months ago—is a long overdue but important opportunity to reestablish due process.
“We are cautiously optimistic that the case is moving forward and look forward to bringing Jason home,” Janis told The Nicaragua Dispatch Tuesday evening.
Jason Puracal, a former real estate salesman in San Juan del Sur, was arrested in his beach home in November 2010 during a police raid without warrant. He was held in jail for more than six months without being charged of any crime, put on trial without the right to present evidence in his defense, and sentenced without notification, according to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which demanded his immediate release three months ago.
A group of 43 U.S. lawmakers from the House of Representatives has also demanded justice for Jason, sending a letter to President Daniel Ortega last May urging him to order an independent review of the case. Several international legal experts and organizations that fight against wrongful convictions have also advocated for Jason’s freedom.
The Nicaraguan government has ignored the international pleas and—the defense team argues—the facts of the case itself.
“Look at the evidence,” Janis implores. “If you are a slave to the evidence, you will understand the difference between a rightful conviction and a wrongful conviction. That did not happen here. Nobody bothered to actually look at the evidence—or, in this case, the lack thereof.”
The long fight for due process
Exasperated but determined, Janis has shouldered the day-to-day burden of fighting for justice in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language. After four trips to Nicaragua, tens of thousands of dollars spent in legal expenses, and countless interviews with international media, Janis, 33, finally has reason to suspect her efforts have moved the chains. On Tuesday afternoon, after a morning spent with the press and meeting with appellate judges to plea for a court date, Janis was notified that an appeals hearing has finally been set for next week.
The sudden movement on Jason’s case—less than 24 hours after Janis arrived back in Nicaragua to press authorities and keep the story alive in the media—comes as a rather disturbingly obvious reminder that Nicaragua’s court system responds more to media pressure than any nobler concerns for due process or rule of law.
“If I weren’t here fighting every day, I don’t know what would happen to him,” Janis says. “If I weren’t here screaming and yelling, if I let my brother go, I don’t know if he would be stuck here forever. I just don’t know.”
Janis says her family and defense team didn’t always intend to make a big international stink about Jason’s case, but when rule of law failed they were left with no other option.
“When we first started out on this, we really tried to work with the prosecutor and the police and we really tried to keep as quiet as we could–we stayed out of the media,” she says. “We wanted to give them room to figure out they had made a mistake here and be able to correct that without all the pressure on them and without turning this into any kind of political situation. But as time went on, it became apparent that neither the police nor the prosecutor cares about what the truth is here. There were railroading this case and so we got to the point where all we could do was look for support from the media and other governments.”
Though the international push hasn’t yet resulted in Jason’s freedom, it has advanced the case. The international outcry about the inhumane prison conditions in La Modelo resulted in Jason being moved out of general population and into a more comfortable cell usually afforded pudgy white-collar criminals, such as former president and ex-convict Arnoldo Alemán. Janis says her brother’s health has improved notably since he was moved into a private cell, and he has started to regain some weight on his emaciated body.
Janis is also aware of the inherent unfairness of the system that does not provide any assurances of equal justice for all.
“I know that there are others in the Nicaraguan system who aren’t as fortunate as Jason is to have family with access to the media and access to U.S. congressmen and access to other things that we have been able to do,” Janis says. “I feel for their families. This is a nightmare for us, so I can’t imagine what it is like for them.”
Keeping the Faith
Despite her family’s prolonged and direful experience with Nicaragua’s criminal justice system, Janis maintains faith that the process will fix itself in the end.
“I am a lawyer, and I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t believe that somewhere along the line there is due process and that other lawyers have the same integrity that I do,” Janis told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “I have a fundamental belief in the system and the notion that the system works somewhere along the line. Even if there are failures in the beginning of the process, there are corrections to be made later. I fully believe that. I am an appellate lawyer, so I have to believe that.”
The appeals court exists for a reason, Janis says. And it’s one she hopes the judges will take seriously.
“No matter what failures happen in the trial court, the appellate court needs to step in and fix that,” she says.
While next week’s court date is a step towards long-delayed due process, Janis and the defense team say they are not celebrating until justice is finally served.
“I am not going to let my brother die in prison,” she says. “That’s just not going to happen. So we are fighting every day to make sure that Jason knows that he is not going to be left alone. We are not going to walk away from him.”