Originally published in the November 2013 issue of the Bar Bulletin.
Seattle University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic filed a petition on behalf of Jason Puracal, demanding an end to ongoing abuses by the government of Nicaragua and redress for the many violations suffered by Puracal and his family.
Puracal and his sister Janis presented the petition prepared by Prof. Tom Antkowiak and his students to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 16, the one-year anniversary of Puracal's return home.
Puracal, a U.S. citizen from Seattle, was arrested on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime, and illegally detained by Nicaragua after a raid on his home and office in November 2010, and languished for nearly two years in the infamous La Modelo prison. Puracal was released only after his family launched an international campaign to save his life. Janis Puracal is an attorney at Bullivant Houser Bailey and a 2007 graduate of Seattle University School of Law.
"Jason Puracal and his family endured a terrible ordeal," Antkowiak said. "The clinic's petition seeks redress for them, and it also supports the family's inspiring vision for change in Nicaragua. We hope that the litigation will initiate much-needed reforms in that nation's judiciary, police force and prisons."
The Inter-American Commission is part of the Organization of American States and is the primary human rights institution in the Americas. Antkowiak said this forum can deliver remedies on both individual and structural levels.
Antkowiak and about 16 students spent hundreds of hours preparing Puracal's petition over the course of two semesters. Students did legal research and analysis, drafting, and documentation of numerous rights violations, including Puracal's inhuman detention conditions and sham trial, as well as his family's forced displacement from Nicaragua. They interviewed Janis, Jason, and his Nicaraguan wife, Scarleth, even communicating with Jason while he was still in prison in Nicaragua.
One of the students, Bret Sachter (a 2013 graduate), said it was one of the most formative experiences he had in law school.
"The inspiration I felt while working on the petition, knowing Jason was suffering in a dangerous prison following the violation of many of his rights under both Nicaraguan and international law, is a feeling I strive to tap into in all aspects of my work," he said.
Antkowiak said the violations go beyond Puracal's case.
"Nicaragua gravely mistreats its prison population and defies basic due process guarantees," said Antkowiak, a professor of international law and a human rights lawyer with experience in Latin America. "The State of Nicaragua has left us no choice but to call on international legal institutions."
Recently, the CRS Report for Congress documented serious abuses in Nicaragua, Antkowiak noted, involving "unlawful killings by the police; harsh prison conditions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and widespread corruption in and politicization of government entities, including the judiciary and the Supreme Electoral Council."
According to Puracal, there are many others, including other Americans, detained at La Modelo without evidence. Without help from the international community, Puracal fears many of the others left at La Modelo will die from starvation and disease.
"I continue to have nightmares about that place and the suffering that was all around me," he said.
Puracal has asked the Inter-American Commission to demand that Nicaragua institute legal reforms as well as initiatives to provide clean water and medical care to those still held at La Modelo. Puracal has also asked the Commission to shut down El Chipote, the torture facility where he was initially detained.
The unfounded case against Puracal continues in Nicaragua. After his release, the Government of Nicaragua petitioned its own Supreme Court to reinstate Puracal's 22-year sentence.