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Originally published Friday, May 11, 2012 at 8:30 PM

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Effort to free Tacoman in Nicaraguan prison gains steam

The U.S. State Department and 43 members of Congress have joined a campaign to free Jason Puracal of Tacoma from prison in Nicaragua.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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An international campaign to free Tacoma's Jason Puracal from a Nicaraguan prison accelerated this week with support from 43 members of Congress and the U.S. State Department.

In a letter to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the lawmakers, led by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, portrayed the trial that led to Puracal's conviction on money-laundering and drug-dealing charges as incompetent and heavily biased toward prosecutors.

The letter, signed Thursday, said "there is a compelling need for a thorough and objective prosecutorial review of Mr. Puracal's case to determine his innocence under Nicaraguan law."

Puracal, a 34-year-old University of Washington graduate, opened a real-estate office in a bucolic Nicaraguan surf town after a stint in the Peace Corps. He was alleged to be part of an international drug-dealing scheme and of using his real-estate escrow account to launder money.

His 22-year prison sentence, in August 2011, has drawn widespread alarm, including from former Drug Enforcement Administration Director Tom Cash, as well as the former attorney general of Canada. The California Innocence Project, after reviewing the case, concluded "there is strong evidence of factual innocence."

The letter from Congress members notes Puracal wasn't able to present evidence about the escrow account or talk privately with his lawyer, and the trial judge wasn't qualified to be a judge.

In a media briefing Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, in response to a question about Puracal, said the agency did "share some of the concerns in that (congressional) letter, particularly with regard to his fair treatment, with regard to his prison conditions. And we're continuing to work with the Nicaraguan side on this and provide all consular support to Mr. Puracal."

Puracal's sister, Janis, a Seattle attorney, said her brother had lost about 40 pounds during his nine months in a prison that lacks basic sanitation and food. During a visit at the La Modelo prison near Managua two weeks ago, he showed clear signs of malnutrition, she said.

The Puracal family, including matriarch Daisy, a Tacoma doctor, is now assisted by Eric Volz, an international-crisis manager who also was wrongfully convicted in Nicaragua. Janis Puracal said the congressional letter and State Department support have buoyed the family.

"This is the first solid group of government officials who've weighed in on the case," she said. "It's a big deal for us."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.

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