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Originally published Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Puracal case dangerous precedent

Tacoma native Jason Puracal is being unjustly imprisoned in Nicaragua in a case with unsettling implications for all Americans who travel abroad, says guest columnist Justin Brooks of the California Innocence Project.

Special to The Times

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Two years ago, American real-estate broker Jason Puracal was living a good life, helping vacation-home seekers locate properties in Nicaragua. His successes were documented in an episode of HGTV's "House Hunters International," in which he showed beach homes to enthusiastic Americans.

His life changed dramatically on Nov. 11, 2011, when masked Nicaraguan police raided the Tacoma native's home and hauled him off to prison. It seems his biggest mistake was living well — he had gained the attention of local law enforcement by owning a new car and living in a nice house.

Jason's office and home were searched without a warrant, and police seized his computers and files. Though no evidence of criminal activity was found, he was arrested and charged with money laundering and drug trafficking.

Today, Jason Puracal lives in a 15-by-15-foot bug-infested concrete cell with seven other men. He is trapped there seven days a week, 24 hours a day, except for a weekly one-hour excursion when he is allowed to stand outside, next to the prison's open sewer system.

What makes his situation truly horrific is the fact that he is clearly innocent. The case against him was fabricated. He should be released immediately.

The Jason Puracal incident exposes a very real danger for Americans traveling or living abroad. The United States government has thus far failed to take the actions necessary to obtain his release, perhaps because fighting for the freedom of those convicted of drug charges is not consistent with our war on drugs in Latin America.

Jason has been visited by consular officials and his family, who report that his health is deteriorating. There is great concern he could soon die in jail. There is no running water in his cell and only a hole in the corner that serves as both a toilet and a sink.

Buckets of parasite-infested water are carried in and boiled with a makeshift-heating system. This past fall, Jason was severely burned by boiling water in his cell. The burns blistered and became infected. He has since developed an inflammatory condition, has lost a tremendous amount of weight, and it is unlikely he will survive even a portion of his 22-year sentence.

This is not the life Jason imagined when he moved to Nicaragua in 2002, after graduating from the University of Washington to serve in the Peace Corps. Jason fell in love with the country and a beautiful Nicaraguan woman. He decided to stay when his tour ended. They married and had a son. He launched a real-estate career in a beach town.

Jason's family thought the nightmare of his arrest would end when the case went to trial. Instead, things got worse. From day one, the trial was a sham. His real-estate office's escrow account was used as alleged evidence of money laundering. Jason wasn't permitted to call his accountant or any other witness to explain the escrow process. The key prosecution witness didn't even know what an escrow account is.

No drugs were found in Jason's home or office. The only drug "evidence" was testimony by a police officer who testified that while Jason's car and clothes had initially tested negative for even microscopic traces of drugs, later tests showed a 70 percent probability of contact with drugs after his possessions were taken into custody, and likely contaminated by contact with other evidence.

In a U.S. court, the evidence against Jason would never even support probable cause. In Nicaragua, it was enough for a conviction and 22-year prison sentence.

We should all be concerned for Jason. Any U.S. citizen who travels or spends any time abroad should consider the precedent his case sets for all of us.

If the United States government does not vigorously fight for Jason's immediate release, other countries will realize all they have to do is call any case a "drug" case and our government will not fight. They will know they can confiscate your property, throw you in prison and you will be powerless. We will all be at risk when we travel.

Justin Brooks is director of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego. To learn more about Jason Puracal, visit www.FreeJasonP.com

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