Her biggest case

Janis Puracal devoted to freeing her brother from Nicaraguan prison

By Katherine Hedland Hansen

When they were growing up in Tacoma, Janis Puracal walked to school every day with her big brother, Jason. Janis PuracalOne morning on the quarter-mile walk, they came around a corner, and out of nowhere, a huge dog lunged at the 5- and 7-year-olds.

"Jason pushed me out of the way and yelled, 'Run!' The dog jumped up and bit him on his ear. You can still see it on him," Janis recalled, touching her ear with her long, slender fingers. "Jason would rather stay there and take the hit then let something happen to me. That's the kind of brother he is."

Years later, Janis '07 has become her brother's protector, devoting her life to freeing Jason from a Nicaraguan prison where he is serving a 22-year sentence for convictions on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. A growing group of international supporters insist he was wrongfully convicted and say there is no evidence that he committed any crime. He has been in prison for nearly two years and has suffered serious health problems because of the unsanitary conditions and diet. His family has been fighting for his release every day since his arrest.

"When you have a brother like that, you would do anything for him," Janis said. "He's my brother and I adore him, and I know if things were the other way around he would do the same thing."

Jason Puracal graduated from the University of Washington and joined the Peace Corps, which sent him to Nicaragua in 2002. He met a Nicaraguan woman, Scarleth, and they were married and had a son. He started a real estate business and enjoyed his life in beautiful, coastal San Juan del Sur.  He was even featured on an episode of "House Hunters International," showing homes to an American couple searching for a vacation home. He turned 35 on May 31.

His life seemed quite idyllic, and his family enjoyed vacations to his tropical home.

"I remember going to visit him after my first year in law school, lying in a hammock all day," Janis said with a smile. "Jason told me to get back to Seattle and finish school."

Her choice was providential, she said, as her brother's case has become her biggest ever.

"I just don't know where we would be if I didn't have a background in the law," she said.
"We have a whole team of people who are working night and day for Jason, and they are all people we have found because of my background in the law and ability to network."

'The police have taken your brother'

In November 2010, Jason met his mother, Dr. Daisy Zachariah, in Costa Rica, where the public health physician from Tacoma was attending a conference, and brought her to his house for a visit. As he worked, she stayed home with her grandson, Jabu. They were jolted awake when officers barged in with automatic weapons and began searching the home. Jason's mother and son were terrified and learned he had been arrested.

Before his arrest, Jason always had a smile, say his family and friends. Photo courtesy Puracal family.

Nicaraguan police had raided Jason's home and office. Masked officers carrying AK rifles searched his real estate office and seized company computers, files and bank accounts and held him at gunpoint for five hours. He and 10 others were arrested.

"My mom called me and said, 'The police have taken your brother,'" Janis said. "It made no sense. I was in Seattle on the phone with the American Embassy and others, and she was down there going from prison to prison trying to find Jason."

Their sister Jamie, who had lived in Nicaragua for a while with Jason, knew Spanish, so the sisters flew down to bring their brother home.

"We thought for sure it was all a big mistake and we would just go there and get him," Janis said. "We had no idea it would become such a nightmare."

They hired a local lawyer who helped them find Jason and start preparing for a hearing. Janis's legal education and skills helped her understand what was going on - and made what was happening even more unbelievable.

"Not one piece of evidence was presented at the original charging hearing - or subsequently," Janis said.  "In a drug trafficking case, not one gram of drugs was presented as evidence. In a money laundering case, there was no evidence of money changing hands. In a conspiracy case, there could not show Jason had any ties to the other defendants."

They have no idea why their brother would be accused of these crimes. The best they can come up with is that he was perceived to be a wealthy American and one of his codefendants was running for political office against the Sandinista government.

"It's mind-boggling," she said. "They plucked some guy off the street and created a case that turned into a 22-year sentence in hell."

Lack of evidence

Janis says the proceedings were replete with violations of Nicaraguan and international laws and revealed a striking lack of evidence. Jason has consistently maintained his innocence. He has suffered repeated violations of basic human and legal rights during his detention and imprisonment, his supporters say.

"The case from beginning to end has been one big circus," Janis said. "It has been one surprise after another for us. Don't just listen to me as Jason's sister," she implores people. "I'm begging you to look at the facts for yourself because you will be just as outraged as I am."

Jason Puracal

Jason Puracal suffers from health problems and has lost more than 40 pounds since his incarceration at La Modelo prison in Nicaragua. Photo courtesy Puracal family.

According to attorneys, the trial was presided over by a political appointee who was neither a judge nor a licensed attorney. When his lack of qualifications came to light, he fled and has not been heard from since. While the defense was summarily prohibited from accessing pretrial discovery and presenting exculpatory evidence at trial, the prosecution's own case effectively proved that Jason did not commit the offenses with which he was charged.

The prosecution also failed to establish any evidence of money laundering despite seizing hundreds of bank and financial records from Jason's business. The prosecution's financial "expert" testified that no money ever changed hands between Jason and the other ten defendants. The expert also testified that Nicaraguan banks red flag any suspicious banking activity and no such concerns were ever shown on Jason's accounts.

Left without evidence to support its case, the prosecution argued that the money coming in and out of Jason's account through RE/MAX must be evidence of money laundering and drug activity because it involved large amounts. The source of the money in the RE/MAX account was, in fact, RE/MAX clients who bought and sold property in Nicaragua through this RE/MAX escrow account.

Although they appealed his conviction immediately, no action has been taken on that request in the past nine months.

On top of the worry over his convictions, his family is desperately worried about Jason's health. He lives in an 8 foot by 15 foot cell with eight other inmates, and he has suffered serious health problems. He has infections caused by the inhumane prison conditions and has developed an inflammatory condition due to the lack of nutrition. He was  seriously burned when he was trying to boil water on a makeshift hotplate. When his mother went to visit, she found him in blood-soaked bandages and with an infection.

Jason was recently hospitalized with a fever, and though doctors wanted him to stay for treatment, the prison refused. Because their mother is a doctor, she has been able to get to the prison and provide medical care and some medications, Janis said, but the horrible prison conditions threaten all the inmates' health.

Change of course

After graduating from New York University, Janis set her sights on law school, thinking she would do criminal defense work. After summer jobs with Riddell Williams and Bullivant Houser Bailey, she happily changed course to civil litigation when Bullivant offered her a position.

"I was really excited to get into practice because I had a little taste of it," she said.

While in law school, she completed an externship at the International Tribunal at the Hague, which piqued her interest in international law.

"It was an amazing experience. I got to interact with judges from around the world," she said.

Her law school experience has been invaluable as she explores both criminal defense and international law in the fight to save her brother, who the firm allows her to formally represent pro bono.

"Bullivant has been incredibly supportive," she said.

Janis works tirelessly on top of her regular caseload on Jason's case. She and other human rights and international attorneys are pursuing numerous avenues to ensure his release.

Among them are Seattle University School of Law Professor Tom Antkowiak and the law school's International Human Rights Clinic, which is monitoring the case and will eventually submit a detailed complaint on Jason's behalf to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently ruled that the Jason's detention is in violation of international law and that he should be released immediately. The opinion was issued by renowned experts from Chile, Norway, Pakistan, Senegal and Ukraine.

Janis and others recently secured a letter signed by 43 members of the United States House of Representatives to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, urging an independent review of Jason's case.

Another petition is pending before the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  In that filing, Janis's co-counsel Jared Genser warns that Jason "is being slowly starved to death by the Government of Nicaragua. He has been denied edible food and potable water on a daily basis for the last 17 months. This and other mistreatment constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, if not torture."

Irwin Cotler, the former Attorney General of Canada and private counsel to Nelson Mandela, has also appealed to Ortega for Jason's release.

"Having reviewed Jason Puracal's case in substantial detail, I would urge you to order such a review of his case. His wrongful conviction is, to be frank, even more clear and compelling than some of the cases where I ordered such reviews in Canada. I have no doubt that Mr. Puracal's conviction is a serious miscarriage of justice.

"When you have a brother like that, you would do anything for him. He’s my brother and I adore him, and I know if things were the other way around he would do the same thing."
Janis Puracal '07

Among the supporters are Eric Volz, who was wrongfully convicted in the same Nicaraguan courtroom as Jason Puracal and spent 14 months in the same prison before being released. He and Tom Cash, the former director of the Drug Enforcement Agency, started a petition on Change.org that quickly gathered nearly 90,000 signatures, each time sending an email to the Nicaraguan government.

"It shut down the Nicaraguan servers," Janis said. "That's what we want to keep doing."

Cash, who has more than 35 years of experience supervising major international drug and money laundering investigations, believes Jason is innocent.

"There's a lot of major drug traffickers in Nicaragua and there's a lot of major drug traffickers in Central America," Cash has said. "Jason Puracal is certainly not one of them."

The Puracals don't know which of these campaigns will work, so they try them all, and never stop. They have waged their war in the media, on social networks and through a website, freejasonp.com.

'Not a day off'

Sitting in a comfortable conference room on the 23rd floor of her downtown office building with a breathtaking view of Elliott Bay and the Space Needle, Janis notes the disparity between her surroundings and her brother's.

"It's so stark," she said sadly. "Honestly, I don't think I would be able to do normal things and enjoy them. I know he wouldn't want me to be in hell with him, but how do I have a nice meal when Jason doesn't have a hot meal?"

Janis Puracal says she is always working on Jason's case, as his pro bono counsel from her office at Bullivant Houser Bailey, and outside of work. Photo by Matt Hagen.

She recounts the story Jason told her of a recent visit with his son, Jabu, who has Down syndrome. When it was time for Jabu and his mother to leave, the little boy clung to his father's leg and tried to get his daddy to walk farther with him. Jason knew he couldn't cross the line in the visiting area.

"Jason can't explain it to him," Janis said. "I don't know how to put it into words...that I can take that step and he cannot."

Janis, Jason and Jaime "the three Js" have always been close, and became more so when their parents divorced when Janis was 13. Their father's death a few years ago also bonded them.

Before Jason's arrest, they would talk on the phone weekly and have regular Skype dates with him and Jabu.

"We would have breakfast with Jabu and ask him how his week was and he would show us his new dance moves," Janis said.

Jason and his family all worry about Jabu and his mother. With Jason in prison, his mother has been unable to afford to send Jabu to school, and they fear it will harm his development. The family misses their regular contact with them both, as they don't have a computer to use, Janis said. Her battle to free her brother and her regular practice are all she has time for.

"There are no days off," she said. "It does take over your life."

She said it's painful to fight for her brother, but also difficult not to be able to help others in the prison or the poverty stricken areas near the prison.

On a recent trip, she and her sister met a Guatemalan man whose conviction had been overturned on appeal but was still being held because the prison wouldn't release him until he came up with the $50 he needed for a bus back to his country. And because he was behind bars, he couldn't make any money.

"You want to give everyone $50, but you just can't."

Jason is not defeated. He dreams of bringing his family back to Seattle and wants to go back to school to study sustainable development. He does his best to stay positive.

"He's read hundreds and hundreds of books to keep his mind sharp and to remind himself there's a whole world outside that cell."

Janis has taken up running as a way to clear her mind, but her thoughts are never far from her big brother. She refuses to give up hope that one day they will be together again.

"Something like this changes your priorities and shifts the way you see the world," she said. "I think about things I thought were important and I realize they weren't. Now I think at the end of the day, my brother is not dead in prison. It's a good day. Jason's life was not destined to end in that prison."

Summer 2012