International Wrongful Convictions: The Unwritten Rules

Written by: Janis C. Puracal, an appellate attorney at the law firm of Bullivant Houser Bailey in Portland, Oregon.

 

 

At this time last year, my brother was being slowly starved to death in a Nicaraguan prison.  I had been fighting for Jason as part of his defense team for nearly a year and a half with little-to-no movement in the Nicaraguan court system.

 

Jason and I, along with our younger sister, Jaime, grew up in Tacoma, Washington.  Jason moved to Nicaragua to serve in the Peace Corps in 2002 after graduating from the University of Washington.  He decided to stay after his service and was working as a real estate broker for the local RE/MAX franchise in San Juan del Sur.

 

On November 11, 2010, Nicaraguan national police stormed Jason’s beachfront office wearing masks and carrying AK rifles.  They threw Jason in the back of a van with ten others and took the computers, phones, and files from the office.  At the same time, the police raided his home where our 65-year-old mother had been visiting from the US and was staying with Jason’s three-year-old son.  The police held my mother and nephew at gunpoint for six hours and refused to tell them what they were looking for.

 

After being held for three days without a phone call to his family or an attorney, Jason, along with ten Nicaraguans, was finally charged with international drug trafficking, money laundering, and organized crime.  But there was no evidence of any crime at all.  Indeed, the police and the prosecution admitted at trial that there were no drugs and no illegal transfers of money.  Instead, the prosecution argued that Jason, a real estate broker, had large sums of money going into and out of his corporate account, and those large sums must be evidence of crime.

 

It took 22 months and an international campaign involving thousands of supporters to finally bring Jason home.  As a civil lawyer trained in commercial litigation, I hit a steep learning curve as part of Jason’s defense team.  Through the 22 month crash course in international wrongful convictions, I quickly learned that there are many unwritten rules to practicing in this area.  Here are just a few:

 

  • Recognize that the courtroom may not be the real battleground.

 

The case against Jason lacked any merit at all; yet, he continued to languish in a maximum security prison without access to proper food, water, or medical care.[1]  During the first week of Jason’s imprisonment, he was moved from prison to prison as the police attempted to hide him from his attorney and family.  Jason spent three days at El Chipote, the infamous underground torture facility used during the Somoza regime.  Jason was thrown into a dark cell with only his boxer shorts and forced to live amongst the cockroaches, ants, and screaming from terrified prisoners in other cells.[2]  Jason was then transferred to La Modelo, the maximum security prison just outside Managua where he spent the remainder of his wrongful detention.  He shared a 12’ x 15’ cell with 8-12 other men and slept on concrete for much of the time.  The daily fight for food and water caused Jason to lose over 35 pounds and suffer from digestive disorders and physical effects of malnutrition.  Jason’s gums began to bleed; his eyes became sunken in; and his skin was covered in rashes and bites from ants, ticks, and mosquitoes.

 

We were fighting the clock, terrified that Jason would die in prison before we could get him out.  But it took us nine months to even get the case to trial.  Despite a three month time limit to bring a criminal case to trial under Nicaraguan law, the prosecution repeatedly requested delays without citing a reason, and the judge granted them with no notice to the defense.  Our entire defense team would appear for the first day of trial only to learn that the trial had been delayed.

 

Throughout the nine months, the defense asked for, and was denied, access to the evidence that had been seized from Jason’s office.  At trial—closed to family and media—the prosecution argued that the documents from the office proved money laundering, but refused to put any of the allegedly inculpatory evidence into the record.  Not a single bank record was offered to prove money laundering and, instead, the prosecution simply offered its “financial expert” (a police officer) to testify that the RE/MAX account held large sums of money.  While the prosecution was permitted to try its case by relying on hearsay from police officers citing anonymous informants, the defense was denied the right to fully examine those officers or put on its own key witnesses to rebut the testimony.  All the while, Jason was refused confidential communications with his lawyers, making preparation for trial a logistical nightmare.

 

Despite the roadblocks facing us, the evidence during the trial came out in Jason’s favor.  The police admitted that they never found a single gram of drugs—not just on Jason, but on any of the eleven defendants in the case.  The police also admitted that no money had ever changed hands between Jason and any of the other defendants.  The prosecution put 295 titles to properties into evidence that were seized from Jason’s office and claimed the titles were evidence of money laundering.  Six of the titles, in fact, belonged to the Nicaraguan military.  The police were forced to admit at trial that Jason did not own any of the properties, and the police had never even questioned the buyers or sellers of the properties.

 

We thought Jason would be coming home after the trial.  Instead, the judge took a 15 minute recess after closing arguments and then convicted all 11 defendants.  He sentenced Jason to 22 years in prison.

 

It was clear that we never had a shot of fighting this case on the merits.  We had to find the pressure points outside the courtroom and win the war elsewhere.

 

  • Understand that ratification of a treaty doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance.

 

Nicaragua ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) on March 12, 1980.[3]  It was one of 48 countries that voted in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[4] and was a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights (“ACHR”).[5]  Both the ICCPR and the ACHR provide for the right to trial before a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law.[6]

Nicaragua’s signature on these fundamental treaties respecting human rights should have been our saving grace.  Indeed, Nicaragua’s own law requires that, to be a district court judge under Nicaraguan law, one must (1) be an attorney, (2) have practiced for at least three years, and (3) have served as a local judge for at least two years.[7]

Yet, we discovered just one month before Jason’s trial that the man who was appointed to preside over the trial was neither a judge nor a lawyer.[8]  Rather, 27-year-old Kriguer Alberto Artola Narvaez was not a licensed attorney, never practiced law, never served as a local judge, and had never even seen a trial.

The story broke in the Nicaraguan news before trial and caused an uproar.  Still, Artola Narvaez was permitted to preside over the trial and issue the conviction and 22-year sentence that would ultimately end up costing my family everything we had worked for to fight against.  Artola Narvaez fled the country shortly after we filed a petition in the United Nations pleading for intervention.[9]

The unfairness of it all was not lost on any of us.  But we were able to use the injustice to energize an international outcry against the Nicaraguan system.  The system had left us with no redress except the one of public opinion and that was what, in the end, was the most powerful.

 

  • Look for leverage in unconventional places.

 

The crimes with which Jason was charged are traditionally governed by domestic law, but domestic law had failed us.  The judicial process in Nicaragua was being selectively enforced and, in Jason’s case, its laws were arbitrarily used as leverage against the public.  Without due process, a country has the potential to become, effectively, a lawless society.

 

So the question became:  where do you turn when you cannot rely on a process guaranteed under domestic criminal law?

 

The Organization of American States (“OAS”), established to enforce and interpret the ACHR, is one option.  The OAS accepts and rules on cases of human rights violations brought by individuals or groups.  But the path to a binding decision is long and slow.  The court has a backlog that could take years to resolve.  With Jason slowly dying in prison, we didn’t have time to wait.

 

We had to look for pressure points elsewhere.  One place was in the media.  The media proved to be an invaluable force, but we had to do our part.  We had to deliver content that was engaging, well-packaged, and, most of all, reliable.

 

For example, because we could not get to a decision in the OAS in time, we looked to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (“WGAD”).  The WGAD investigates cases by looking at only the procedural violations.[10]  The WGAD, unlike the OAS, does not address the merits of the case (i.e., the question of innocence or guilt) and operates under a vastly different procedure as part of the United Nations.[11]  The WGAD’s decisions are not binding; they are merely recommendations to a state.  The timeline for a recommendation, however, is just three to six months.

 

We filed a petition with the WGAD on January 18, 2012, and it was the first time the Government of Nicaragua had been called before the WGAD.  The filing made headlines in Nicaragua.[12]

 

The WGAD’s decision was released in May 2012, and the Group agreed that “there were major irregularities” in Jason’s trial, resulting in an arbitrary detention.[13]  The WGAD recommended the Government of Nicaragua “order the immediate release of Mr. Puracal.”  Again, the media came through, splashing the papers with the headline:  “United Nations Calls on Nicaragua to Immediately Release Wrongly Imprisoned U.S. Citizen Jason Puracal.”  Jason was released four months later.

 

*          *          *

 

We will likely never know what ultimately forced Jason’s release and return home in September of 2012.  I am, however, certain that it took a global effort from thousands of people around the world to save his life.  Many others are not so lucky.

 

Although Jason was deported from Nicaragua, the prosecution has appealed the case to the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, forcing us to turn to the OAS for help.  The petition to the OAS will seek legal reform to help the many left in Nicaragua who have not been able to navigate the labyrinth.  In the meantime, there is much work to be done around the world.  To all of those who have led, joined, or supported the fight, thank you.

 


[1] Physical abuse and the denial of food, water, and proper medical care constitute serious violations of the standard for the detention of prisoners.  Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, para. 20(1) (“Every prisoner shall be provided by the administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served.”); para. 20(2) (“Drinking water shall be available to every prisoner whenever he needs it.”); para. 22(2) (“Sick prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals.  Where hospital facilities are provided in an institution, their equipment, furnishings and pharmaceutical supplies shall be proper for the medical care and treatment of sick prisoners, and there shall be a staff of suitable trained officers.”).

[2] The unsanitary and infested conditions in which Jason was forced to live were further violations of international standards.  Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, para. 10 (“All accommodation provided for the use of prisoners and in particular all sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.”), para. 12 (“The sanitary installations shall be adequate to enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and in a clean and decent manner.”), para. 14 (“All parts of an institution regularly used by prisoners shall be properly maintained and kept scrupulously clean at all times.”), para. 15 (“Prisoners shall be required to keep their persons clean, and to this end they shall be provided with water and with such toilet articles as are necessary for health and cleanliness.”).

[4] Yearbook of the United Nations 1948-1949 at p. 535.

[5] See Signatories and Ratifications available at http://www.cidh.oas.org/Basicos/English/Basic4.Amer.Conv.Ratif.htm.

[6] Article 14 of the ICCPR provides that “[i]n the determination of any criminal charge against him, or of his rights and obligations in a suit at law, everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.”  Article 8 of the ACHR confirms the same right:  “Every person has the right to a hearing, with due guarantees and within a reasonable time, by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal, previously established by law, in the substantiation of any accusation of a criminal nature made against him[.]”

[7] Article 137 of the Judicial Power Organization Act.

[8] See Lésber Quintero, Abnormal Appointment of Judge in Rivas, El Nuevo Diario, July 4, 2011, available at:  http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/nacionales/106766-raro-nombramiento-de-juez-rivas; Ramón Villarreal B., Lucía Vargas, and  Eddy López, Deputy Judge Unregistered Attorney, La Prensa, July 4, 2011, available at: http://www.laprensa.com.ni/2011/07/04/politica/65636; Ramón H. Potosme, Ramón Villarreal, and Lucía Vargas, Rivas Judge is Not a Lawyer by Error, La Prensa, July 5, 2011, available at: http://www.laprensa.com.ni/2011/07/05/nacionales/65706.

[9] See Lésber Quintero, Controversial Judge Leaves Rivas, El Nuevo Diario, February 2, 2012, available at:  http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/nacionales/240484.

[10] The WGAD was established by resolution 1991/42 of the former Commission on Human Rights.  Resolutions 1997/50, 2000/36, and 2003/31 were adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights to extend the mandate of the WGAD.  Resolutions 6/4 and 15/18, further extending the mandate of the Working Group, were adopted by the Human Rights Council, which has “assume[d] . . . all mandates, mechanisms, functions and responsibilities of the Commission on Human Rights . . . .”  G.A. Res. 60/251, para. 6 (Mar. 15, 2006).  See also http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Detention/Pages/WGADIndex.aspx.

[11] See, e.g., Revised Methods of Work of the Working Group, available at:  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Detention/Pages/Complaints.aspx.

[12] See, e.g., Elizabeth Romero, Denounce the Country by “Arbitrary Detention,” La Prensa, January 24, 2012, available at:  http://www.laprensa.com.ni/2012/01/24/ambito/88174.

[13] Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its sixty-third session, 30 April–4 May 2012 – No. 10/2012 (Nicaragua), available at:  http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?m=117.

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