By Mary Slosson
(Reuters) - A U.S. citizen freed from a Nicaraguan jail after his 22-year prison sentence for drug trafficking was thrown out by an appeals court has left the country and is safe in an undisclosed location, his supporters said on Friday.
Jason Puracal, whose case drew support from international human rights activists who said he was wrongly convicted, was found guilty of drug trafficking and money laundering by a trial judge last year along with 10 Nicaraguan co-defendants after being detained in 2010. He has maintained his innocence.
Puracal, 35, left La Modelo prison in Tipitapa, just east of Managua, on Thursday after an appeals court ordered that he be set free. At the time of his release, a person familiar with the case told Reuters Puracal was restricted from leaving Managua.
"Jason is out of Nicaragua. He is in a safe and undisclosed location," a representative for Puracal's family said, without elaborating on where he may be or if he has returned to the United States.
Representatives of the family have told reporters that he would not be making any public statements or doing media interviews for the foreseeable future.
His sister, 33-year-old Janis Puracal, told Reuters on Thursday that the family wished to keep Jason close after the nearly two-year ordeal.
"If this case has taught us anything, it's how much we value each other and being close to each other," she said in a phone interview. "Family has always been a big deal to us. It was taken away from us without any choice on our part, and we don't want to let that happen again."
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. They said on Thursday that they were considering appealing to the country's Supreme Court.
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.
(Reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)