A growing chorus of defense attorneys, investigators, human rights activists and lawmakers is calling for 34-year-old Jason Puracal's release.
Puracal's advocates include the director of the California Innocence Project, the human-rights attorney who helped win freedom for Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and an ex-FBI agent who was one of the early champions of Amanda Knox's innocence. A U.S. congressman told CNN that Puracal's arrest is tantamount to kidnapping. Even the three American hikers freed from Iran have spoken out against the American's conviction.
"This is an extreme miscarriage of justice. It's a farce from top to bottom," said Jared Genser, the attorney who represented Suu Kyi. He's been working on Puracal's case pro bono.
Genser recently filed a petition with a United Nations panel alleging numerous prosecutorial flaws in the complicated case. The panel is investigating whether Puracal's conviction violates international law.
Nicaraguan authorities say the American who worked as a real estate in the tourist city of San Juan del Sur was using his business as a front to launder money for an international drug trafficking syndicate.
But no evidence was presented at Puracal's August 2011 trial to support those accusations, no drugs were found, and investigators could not establish links between Puracal and 10 Nicaraguan nationals who were convicted with him, his defense team says. Puracal has never even met the other defendants, and the co-defendants told the judge in the case that they had never met Puracal, the American's lawyers say.
As to the money-laundering charge, the prosecution's sole money-laundering expert was unable to explain on the stand what an escrow account is, his lawyers say.
"The entire basis of the case against Jason amounted to 'He must be guilty because look how much money he has in his bank accounts,' never mind that they were legitimate escrow accounts involving legitimate buyers and legitimate titles," said Justin Brooks, the director of the California Innocence Project, a California Western Law School clinic that has helped exonerate 10 prisoners in the state in its 13-year history.
A CNN reporter in Managua made numerous attempts over four weeks to interview or obtain a statement from Javier Morazán Chavarría, who prosecuted Puracal. Each time the reporter spoke with Adriana Rocha, a spokeswoman for the attorney's office, Rocha told the reporter that an interview might be granted the following week and to keep calling back. Each week, the reporter's requests were rebuffed, and no comment was ever given.
Time running out
Time is critical to Puracal, his defense team says, because he's in dire health and hasn't received adequate medical care.
In the past few months, the American has shed 40 pounds from his usual 180-pound frame, his lawyers say. During his nearly 15 months behind bars, Puracal has been beaten and been refused water and food for days at a time, and he's developed a painful inflammation in his bowels, attorney Genser says.
Puracal's mother and sister, who have visited him, say he suffered severe burns last winter when he tried to use an open wire in the ceiling of his cell to boil the water in his toilet to make it drinkable.
"None of this is surprising for Nicaragua -- these are the conditions. But what's surprising is that it's happening to an American," said Brooks, who also trains lawyers across Latin America and will soon be launching programs similar to the California Innocence Project in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
"I don't see a big push from the State Department to help him," the attorney said. Brooks recently met with lawmakers in Washington to urge more diplomatic action.
"I think there's a perception that he's just another drug case in a country where there are dozens of drug cases," Brooks said.
The attorney points to the defense team's assertion that the judge who solely decided Puracal's guilt and ordered the 22-year sentence was a political appointee and not qualified under Nicaraguan law to be a judge.
The ongoing drug war in Mexico and Latin America is affecting Puracal's case, said Brooks. The U.S. has named Nicaragua a major drug-trafficking nation. The country is a stopover point for cocaine shipments, where low-level traffickers move drugs to Mexico, according to Insightcrime.org, a joint initiative of American University in Washington and the Fundación Ideas para la Paz in Colombia, which reports on organized crime in the Americas. The U.S. has given Nicaragua millions in anti-drug trafficking aid since 2007, according to Insight.