Crime & Justice

Honduran ex-president pleads not guilty to drug-trafficking, weapons charges

New York, May 10 (EFE).- Honduran ex-President Juan Orlando Hernandez pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a federal court in the United States to drug-trafficking and weapons charges.

“Not guilty, your honor,” Hernandez responded when asked to enter his plea by Kevin Castel, senior US district judge of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The ex-head of state, who was extradited to the US from his homeland on April 21, was dressed in a blue prison uniform during his first in-person appearance in court.

Wearing a mask, he smiled and waved to spectators and members of the media.

The judge, meanwhile, said he would like to set Jan. 17, 2023, as the date for the start of jury selection.

The next hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 28, allowing time for prosecutors to gather evidence in the case and for Hernandez’s defense team to review it.

Hernandez served as head of state of Honduras from 2014 until Jan. 27 of this year, less than three weeks before he was arrested pursuant to a US extradition request.

The 53-year-old ex-president, who has repeatedly asserted his innocence, made a court appearance via video-link from his prison cell on April 22 – a day after his extradition – and said through an interpreter that he was aware of the charges he faces and knows he could be sentenced to life behind bars.

The indictment handed down by the US Department of Justice alleged that between around 2004 and early 2022 Hernandez “participated in a corrupt and violent drug-trafficking conspiracy to facilitate the importation of hundreds of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the United States.”

It said he “allegedly received millions of dollars to use his public office, law enforcement and the military to support drug-trafficking organizations in Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere.”

Hernandez has been charged with conspiracy to import controlled substances into the US and two other counts pertaining to the use of machine guns and destructive devices in furtherance of the smuggling operation.

All three counts carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The ex-president’s brother, former lawmaker Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, was sentenced in March 2021 in the US to life in prison after being convicted of smuggling nearly 204 tons of cocaine into the country over the course of 15 years.

The court heard testimony that Tony funneled millions of dollars in bribes to then-President Hernandez, who denied the accusations of drug links and denounced his brother’s sentence as “outrageous.”

Over the course of roughly 15 years, the Hernandez brothers trafficked more than 500,000 kilograms (1.1 million pounds) of cocaine, according to the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa.

During the hearing, Hernandez’s attorney, Raymond Colon, said his client was being treated like a “prisoner of war, not an inmate” at the Brooklyn jail where he is being held.

The lawyer said Hernandez is “not a terrorist,” yet he has been kept isolated from the other detainees, has not been able to be in phone contact with his family, is not allowed to read or send emails and only has been permitted access to an open space for exercise on one occasion.

At the end of the arraignment, two people shouted out in Spanish: “Repent!” and “Rat!”

A group of protesters outside the courtroom, meanwhile, called for Hernandez to be sentenced to life in prison and yelled, “Who defends a narco-dictator?”

Separately Tuesday, the ex-director of Honduras’ National Police, Juan Carlos Bonilla Villadares, was extradited to New York to face charges of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and related weapons offenses involving the use and possession of machine guns and destructive devices.

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