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Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández sentenced to 45 years in US prison

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández sentenced to 45 years in US prison

A defiant former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was sentenced in New York Wednesday to 45 years in prison for teaming up with some bribe-paying drug traffickers for over a decade to ensure over 400 tons of cocaine made it to the United States.

Judge P. Kevin Castel sentenced Hernández to 45 years in a U.S. prison and fined him $8 million, saying that the penalty should serve as a warning to "well educated, well dressed" individuals who gain power and think their status insulates them from justice when they do wrong.

A jury convicted him in March in Manhattan federal court after a two-week trial, which was closely followed in his home country.

FORMER PRESIDENT OF HONDURAS CONVICTED IN US OF AIDING DRUG TRAFFICKERS

"I am innocent," Hernández said through an interpreter at his sentencing. "I was wrongly and unjustly accused."

In a lengthy extemporaneous statement interrupted several times by the judge who repeatedly reminded him that this was not a time to relitigate the trial, Hernández portrayed himself as a hero of the anti-drug trafficking movement who teamed up with American authorities under three U.S. presidential administrations to reduce drug imports.

But the judge said trial evidence proved the opposite and that Hernández employed "considerable acting skills" to make it seem that he was an anti-drug trafficking crusader while he deployed his nation's police and military, when necessary, to protect the drug trade.

Castel called Hernández a "two-faced politician hungry for power" who protected a select group of traffickers.

As the sentence was announced, the bespectacled Hernández in a dull green prison uniform stood next to his lawyer in front of two U.S. marshals. After shaking hands with his lawyer and turning to nod toward the packed spectator section, Hernández hobbled out of court with the help of a cane and a brace on one foot.

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of life in prison, plus 30 years, the same as the recommendation from the court's probation officers.

Hernández, 55, served two terms as the leader of the Central American nation of roughly 10 million people.

He was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, three months after leaving office in 2022 and was extradited to the U.S. in April of that year.

U.S. prosecutors say Hernández worked with drug traffickers as long ago as 2004, taking millions of dollars in bribes as he rose from rural congressman to president of the National Congress and then to the country’s highest office.

Hernández acknowledged in trial testimony that drug money was paid to virtually all political parties in Honduras, but he denied accepting bribes himself.

Hernández insisted in his lengthy statement Wednesday that his trial was unjust because he was not allowed to include evidence that would have caused the jury to find him not guilty. He said he was being persecuted by politicians and drug traffickers.

"It’s as if I had been thrown into a deep river with my hands bound," he said.

In Honduras Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Laura Dogu called the sentencing an important step in combating the social consequences of drug trafficking.

"Here in Honduras and in the United States, we cannot forget that the actions of Juan Orlando have made the people suffer," Dogu said.

Luis Romero, a Honduran criminal lawyer and analyst, said the sentence was a surprise to many people in Honduras who believed he would receive a life sentence.

At a news conference in Honduras, Hernández's wife, Ana García, said her husband was innocent and called the sentencing a "judicial lynching." García — who is planning to run for president next year — said she looked forward to her husband’s appeal.

"Today is only a chapter in a series of injustices," she said.

Trial witnesses included traffickers who admitted responsibility for dozens of murders and said Hernández was an enthusiastic protector of some of the world’s most powerful cocaine dealers, including notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, who is serving a life prison term in the U.S.

During his remarks, the judge noted that Guzman had given a $1 million bribe in 2013 directly to Hernández's brother, Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández, a former Honduran congressman who was sentenced to life in a U.S. prison in 2021 in New York for his own conviction on drug charges.

Hernández shook his head when he heard Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacob Gutwillig tell the judge that he chose to "commit evil."

"No one, not even the former president of a country, is above the law," Gutwillig said.

Hernández was sentenced in a federal courthouse less than two blocks from where former U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to be sentenced July 11 following his conviction on charges of falsifying business records.

As he announced the sentence, Castel spoke at length about the ways Hernández had received a fair trial and described much of the key evidence that emerged at trial to prove guilt.

Castel described the number of killings linked to the drug trade during Hernández's political career as "staggering," saying one drug trafficking witness admitted at the trial that he aided 56 killings and another said he was involved in 78 murders before he began cooperating with U.S. authorities.

He noted that Hernández only helped the drug traffickers who aided his political ambitions, and not all the time.

"No, he was too smart for that," Castel said. The judge said Hernández aided traffickers whenever he could.

"His No. 1 goal was his own political survival," Castel said.

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