By Ivan Castro
MANAGUA, Nicaragua (Reuters) - A U.S. citizen serving a 22-year prison sentence in Nicaragua for drug trafficking and money laundering who has become a cause célèbre for international human rights activists was ordered freed on Thursday after an appeals court overturned his conviction.
Jason Puracal, 35, was ordered released from the La Modela prison in Tipitapa, just east of the capital Managua, on Thursday by an appeals court that heard his case last month.
Puracal was found guilty of drug trafficking and money laundering by a Nicaraguan trial judge last year, along with 10 Nicaraguan co-defendants, after being detained in 2010, though he has consistently maintained his innocence.
The appeals court ordered that the trial be annulled because the judge did not substantiate the reasons for his ruling, and excluded evidence defense attorneys wanted to present.
Puracal's co-defendants are being released as well.
"We have been fighting for this moment for two years, and it is an amazing feeling to know that the appellate court has recognized what the rest of the world recognized a long time ago, and that is that Jason is innocent," his sister, 33-year-old Janis Puracal, told Reuters by phone.
Supporters say he is expected to be released from jail and then flown out of the country later on Thursday, although they note he will not be reunited with family members for 24 hours. They would not say to where he was being flown.
The appeals court heard Puracal's case last month after his supporters pushed for such a hearing, saying he was wrongly convicted. The supporters redoubled their efforts earlier this summer upon learning that Puracal, who has been in solitary confinement, was put on suicide watch by Nicaraguan authorities.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in May that Puracal was arbitrarily imprisoned and recommended he be freed.
Puracal's other backers include a human rights lawyer who previously worked on behalf of former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
Even the California Innocence Project, which normally focuses on wrongfully convicted inmates in that state's prison system, has taken up his cause.
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, with whom he has a son.
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.
Prosecutors said that Puracal used a real estate company to buy properties with drug money. Prosecutors declined to comment on the decision on Thursday.
(Writing and additional reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)