By Mary Slosson
(Reuters) - A U.S. citizen serving a 22-year prison sentence in Nicaragua for drug trafficking and money laundering who a United Nations group has said was wrongly convicted has been granted an appeals hearing, his supporters announced on Wednesday.
Jason Puracal, 35, was detained by Nicaraguan authorities in November 2010 and later found guilty by a trial judge along with 10 Nicaraguan co-defendants despite their testimony that they had never met or worked with Puracal, his legal team said. It added that the prosecution's own witnesses said he was innocent.
Puracal has become a cause célèbre for human rights activists in the United States and around the world, with U.S. lawmakers appealing to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and a former high-ranking U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official launching a massive petition drive on Puracal's behalf.
"The 11-month wait for Jason's hearing is over. The one-year anniversary of his conviction will be August 29, and we really hope to have him home by then. We're optimistic, and we just ask that people continue to stay engaged," said Eric Volz, founder of an international crisis resource group called the David House Agency that has been helping push for Puracal's release.
Puracal's appeal will come before a three-judge panel on August 16 in a hearing that is expected to last five days, supporters said. A decision could come anywhere from five days to months after the hearing concludes.
Neither prosecutors nor the Nicaraguan government immediately responded to requests for comment.
Supporters have been pushing for the appeal to be heard for nearly a year, and heightened those efforts in the past week after finding out that Puracal, who has been in solitary confinement, was put on suicide watch by Nicaraguan authorities.
Puracal's sisters Janis and Jaime flew to Nicaragua this week and started knocking on the doors of government officials and visited the appeals court in person, supporters said.
"Within four hours, Jason's attorney got a phone call being notified of the date that was being set for the hearing. That's the main reason we believe this is finally moving," Volz told Reuters.
Volz was himself convicted of murder in the same Nicaraguan courtroom in 2006, eventually serving 14 months of a 30-year sentence in the same La Modelo prison in Tipitapa, just east of the capital Managua. A Nicaraguan appeals court overturned his conviction last year.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in May that Puracal was arbitrarily imprisoned and recommended that he be immediately freed.
A U.S. citizen born in Washington state, Puracal became a resident of Nicaragua after serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2002, and he has married a Nicaraguan woman.
Before his arrest, he was working at a real estate office in the Nicaraguan city of San Juan del Sur, a surfing destination on the Pacific Coast.
Puracal's supporters said he came under suspicion due to his job as a real estate agent, which gave him control over large sums of money held in escrow for property transactions and drew the attention of Nicaraguan law enforcement authorities.
(Reporting by Mary Slosson in Sacramento, California; Additional reporting by Ivan Castro in Managua, Nicaragua; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)