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Former Honduran President Hernandez pleads not guilty to US drug charges

Honduran former President Juan Orlando Hernandez, second from left, is seen shackled at the headquarters of the Honduras Police, after receiving an extradition order from the United States in Tegucigalpa, on Feb. 15, 2022. On Tuesday, he pleaded not guilty in federal court in Manhattan. (AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The former president of Honduras wants to call former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama as well as convicted Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman as defense witnesses against U.S. drug charges.

Juan Orlando Hernandez, who was a head of state from 2014 until January, appeared in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday to plead not guilty to engaging in an 18-year drug trafficking conspiracy. After the arraignment, Hernandez’s lawyer Raymond Colon spoke to reporters outside the courthouse and proclaimed his client’s innocence.

Colon said Guzman, the former head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel who is now serving a life sentence in the U.S., could be called to testify that he never met or dealt with Hernandez. Trump and Obama would say that Hernandez was a strong ally in the fight against drug trafficking, the lawyer suggested.

“They acknowledged his activities and my client was the first president to enforce or agree to the extradition of individuals in Honduras that were trafficking narcotics,” Colon said. “We need to bring that out and maybe that’s our way out of a life sentence.”

Hernandez, 53, was extradited to New York last month to face charges that he helped facilitate the smuggling of hundreds of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. According to U.S. prosecutors, Hernandez received millions of dollars to use his office and his nation’s law enforcement and military to support drug traffickers in Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere.

The former president appeared for his arraignment dressed in black prison fatigues and guarded by federal marshals. He placed his right hand over his heart in a sign of recognition of supporters as he entered the courtroom.

“Not guilty,” Hernandez said to the court in Spanish.

Colon told U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel at Tuesday’s hearing that Hernandez was being treated “like a prisoner of war” at the federal jail in Brooklyn, New York, where he’s in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. During his one hour a day outside alone on the jail’s basketball court, Hernandez was denied either a basketball or soccer ball, the lawyer said.

“He’s the former president of Honduras,” Colon told Castel, adding that jail officials also prevented him from visiting his client for 14 days after his April 21 arrival. “My client is asking for no more or no less than these others who are detained in United States custody.”

The judge ordered prosecutors to investigate Hernandez’s treatment by U.S. prison officials to ensure he’s able to confer with his lawyer at the federal jail.

As he left court, Hernandez waved to the audience that included supporters as well as critics wearing T-shirts that said “Justice for Honduras.” Several audience members shouted “Rata!” — Spanish for “rat” —  while others told him to “Repent!” in Spanish.

Hernandez is accused of taking money from Guzman as well as partnering with Honduran drug traffickers, including his brother. Juan Antonio Hernandez, a former Honduran congressman, was sentenced to life in a U.S. prison last year after being found guilty of participating in the smuggling of at least 185,000 kilograms of cocaine.

Juan Orlando Hernandez used drug money to fund his political rise, according to prosecutors. In 2005, as a congressman running for reelection, he allegedly accepted $40,000 in dirty money from Victor Hugo Diaz Morales, or “El Rojo,” the former leader of a drug organization based in Honduras and Guatemala. The bribe was paid through Hernandez’s brother, prosecutors say.

Along with drug-trafficking conspiracy charges, Hernandez is facing a number of counts relating to the possession and use of machine guns and other destructive devices. If convicted of conspiring to use and carry machine guns in furtherance of a cocaine importation scheme, he faces as long as life in prison, Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York said.

Outside court on Tuesday, Colon also claimed Hernandez had kept U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials apprised of the activities of drug traffickers in his country and was even invited to Central Intelligence Agency headquarters for a briefing. The lawyer said U.S. authorities were now trying to hold his client responsible for the crimes of his brother.


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