By Emily Flitter and Mary Slosson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When a guard at a Nicaraguan prison showed Jason Puracal the newspaper headline saying he would be freed, he tried to walk out of jail that instant, only to be sent back to his cell.
A few days later, however, Puracal, the U.S. citizen who was jailed in Nicaragua two years ago after being wrongfully convicted of drug trafficking and money laundering, walked free.
"The whole process has been very surreal," Puracal, 35, said in an interview with Reuters on Monday.
He said he had faced hunger, squalid conditions and the constant threat of violence while in prison.
"It's a very hot, dirty, crowded, insect-infested place," he said. "I would just think of my son. He was the ray of hope that kept me going."
And Puracal says there are more like him in the prison where he was held, innocent people, some of whom are U.S. citizens, serving long sentences after being wrongfully convicted.
"I've been told there's literally hundreds," he said.
Puracal was detained by Nicaraguan authorities in November 2010 and found guilty by a trial judge nine months later along with 10 co-defendants, all of them Nicaraguan nationals. He initially received a 22-year prison sentence but was released last week after a campaign by international rights activists to overturn his conviction.
An appeals court ordered that his trial be annulled because the judge did not substantiate the reasons for his verdict and excluded evidence defense attorneys wanted to present.
Puracal said he had no idea why he was targeted by Nicaraguan authorities.
Puracal's co-defendants, who also were released under the court order, testified they had never met or worked with him, and the prosecution's own witnesses said Puracal was innocent, according to his legal team.
Puracal became 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.
His sister Janis spearheaded the earliest attempts to win his freedom.
"She's exhausted all of her resources - all of the family's resources," he said, adding the family had spent more than $500,000 to overturn his conviction.
Puracal, a native of Washington state, became a resident of Nicaragua after serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2002. He married a Nicaraguan woman, with whom he has a son, now 5 years old.
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 Puracal used a real estate company to buy properties with drug money.
The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in May that Puracal was arbitrarily imprisoned and recommended he be freed.
The appeals court heard Puracal's case last month after his supporters pushed for a hearing, saying he was wrongly convicted. The supporters redoubled their efforts earlier this summer after learning that Puracal, who had been in solitary confinement, was put on suicide watch by Nicaraguan authorities.
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, took up his cause.
Puracal said he may someday return to Nicaragua to finish the community development work he was doing before he was arrested. He also hopes to help others fight wrongful imprisonment.
And he has learned this lesson: "Never stop saying I love you to the people in your life."
(The story corrects spelling of Janis in paragraph 13.)
(Editing by Bill Trott)