Ex-Honduran president appears before high court to hear US drug charges
Tegucigalpa, Feb 16 (EFE).- Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez appeared before a judge designated by the Central American country’s Supreme Court to hear the drug trafficking charges filed against him by the United States and for which a “formal” arrest request was made with an eye toward extraditing him to stand trial.
The judge ordered the former leader to be held in “provisional detention” at a National Police facility, where he had been sent after his capture on Tuesday at his home in Tegucigalpa, and the magistrate set his next hearing for March 16 for the “presentation of evidence,” court spokesman Melvin Duarte told reporters.
Hernandez, wearing a facemask and clear glasses, unhandcuffed and waving to greet court workers standing along the corridors of the court building, entered the courtroom under heavy police guard about 10 am to await the arrival of the judge and his staffers.
Thus began the process for extraditing Hernandez, who stands accused by the US of three counts linked to drug trafficking. He is the first former president of Honduras for whom extradition had been requested, although his eight years in office (2014-2022) were marked by multiple complaints of alleged corruption and ties to drug trafficking, although no Honduran court ever proceeded against him.
When Hernandez entered the high court building, outside activists from the conservative National Party, under the banner of which he came to power, expressed their support for the ex-leader by chanting slogans and displaying signs with messages like “Hernandez, we’re with you” and “We’re supporting Juan Orlando and his family.”
Briefly the situation outside heated up with the arrival of a group of activists from the now-governing leftist Freedom and Refoundation Party, and the two groups seemed to be on the verge of a pitched battle before police intervened to separate them.
The high court spokesman said that during the first part of the hearing, the ex-president and his team of attorneys heard the charges formulated by a court in the Southern District of New York.
In addition, Hernandez was made aware by the judge of “the rights he enjoys during the extradition process” beginning with this first hearing, which was suspended at noon for lunch.
Duarte said that the 53-year-old Hernandez “has a defense team that is rather solid presenting his arguments,” and that the judge did not accept the defense request to have him held under “house arrest.”
The US extradition request was something that many Hondurans had demanded but others had awaited with anxiety, given the growing number of complaints of alleged crimes – corruption and drug trafficking – he is suspected of both in Honduras and in the US.
After it became known that the US Embassy on Monday had requested Hernandez’s arrest and extradition, an overwhelming sense of jubilation began to be felt in Honduras, a country with 9.5 million people, 70 percent of whom live in poverty, according to various sources.
Hondurans also suffer from bad healthcare and educational systems, a judiciary tainted by complaints of corruption, criminal violence, drug trafficking and impunity for crimes, among other ills, and the government has not been able to get these problems under control since 1980, when the country returned to democracy after almost 20 years of military regimes.
During the eight years that Hernandez served as president, at least 32 Hondurans accused of drug crimes in the US were extradited to that country and several of them were convicted, some of them sentenced to life in prison, including former lawmaker Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, the brother of the ex-president.
If he is extradited, a process that could take up to three months, Hernandez would face three charges for conspiracy to import a controlled substance – that is, cocaine – into the US, as well as using or bearing firearms to accomplish that goal.
The complaints against Hernandez have also tainted other Honduran politicians, including former President Porfirio Lobo (2010-2014), whose son Fabio Porfirtio Lobo in September 2017 was sentenced in a federal court in New York to 24 years behind bars for conspiring to ship cocaine from Honduras into the US.