MANAGUA, Nicaragua (Reuters) - A U.S. citizen sentenced to 22 years in prison in Nicaragua on drug-trafficking charges walked out of jail a free man on Thursday after his conviction was thrown out by an appeals court in a case that rallied international rights activists.
Jason Puracal, 35, left La Modelo prison in Tipitapa, just east of the capital, Managua, on Thursday afternoon after the appeals court that heard his case last month ordered he be set free.
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. He has 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 immediate fate was unclear. A person familiar with the case told Reuters that Puracal was restricted from leaving Managua. The source voiced concern that Puracal would be rearrested by Nicaraguan authorities.
Before Puracal was released, Nicaraguan Attorney General Julio Centeno told a local television station that his office was considering whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, the nation's highest judicial body.
"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," Puracal's sister, Janis Puracal, said by telephone.
Puracal emerged from the prison behind his co-defendants, who were also released under the court order. He was then taken in a motorcade to Managua, although his exact destination was unknown.
Members of the media were not allowed to approach Puracal as he left. Representatives for the family told reporters that he would not be making any public statements or doing media interviews for the foreseeable future.
Puracal's attorney, Fabbrith Gómez, said he would be meeting privately with his client after the release.
"At the moment, he will be in Nicaragua," Gómez said, adding that Puracal would decide on returning to the United States in coordination with his family.
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.
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 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.
The U.N. 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, took up his cause.
Writing and additional reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney