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Police detain ex-Honduras president Hernandez as U.S. seeks extradition

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By Reuters
Honduran ex-president willing to surrender after police surround home
Honduran ex-president willing to surrender after police surround home   -   Copyright  Thomson Reuters 2022

By Gustavo Palencia

TEGUCIGALPA -Honduran police detained former president Juan Orlando Hernandez on Tuesday, placing handcuffs on his wrists after he left his house in the capital Tegucigalpa, in a dramatic fall from grace only weeks after leaving power.

In live footage shown on national TV, police officials gave Hernandez a bullet-proof vest and placed a chain between his arms and ankles before taking him to a nearby base for police special forces.

Hernandez was shown seated at a table where doctors undertook a medical examination in front of the media, including unbuttoning his shirt to put a stethoscope on his chest, according to live HCH Noticias images. Hernandez was then driven away.

Hernandez’s detention comes after a Honduran judge on Tuesday ordered the former right-wing leader’s arrest amid an extradition request by the United States on drug-trafficking and weapons charges.

Hernandez must appear before the judge within 24 hours, the spokesman added.

Washington’s request for extradition is in contrast to a period when the U.S. government saw Hernandez as a vital ally in volatile Central America during his eight years in power.

A U.S. Embassy document, seen by Reuters on Tuesday, said Hernandez was wanted on charges that he participated in a drug-trafficking scheme between 2004 and 2022.

Hernandez, who was replaced as president last month by leftist Xiomara Castro, has pledged to cooperate with national police.

Among the charges, Hernandez, 53, is accused of participating in an operation to receive in Honduras tonnes of cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela, the document said. The cocaine was then to be shipped to the United States.

The embassy also said Hernandez – who was president from 2014 to 2022 – received millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for protecting traffickers from investigation and prosecution. The firearms charges include carrying, using, or aiding and abetting the use of weapons, including machine guns.

The U.S. State Department referred queries to the U.S. Justice Department, which declined to comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan declined to comment.

Honduras’ Supreme Court – which will decide on the extradition request – met on Tuesday and appointed a justice to oversee the case. The process could last between two and three months, according to Hernandez’s defense.

Hernandez had been holed up in his home after about 100 police officers surrounded it late on Monday.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Hernandez posted a message on Twitter saying he had informed the police that he was “ready to collaborate”. His lawyer also alleged his rights had been trampled as he had immunity as a member of a regional congress.

Just a few hours after leaving office on Jan. 27, Hernandez joined the Central American Parliament (Parlacen), a six-country regional body that affords its members immunity from prosecution.

However, any immunity bestowed by Parlacen, which comprises elected officials as well as former presidents and vice presidents, can be removed or suspended at the request of a member’s home country.

Security Minister Ramon Sabillon said Tuesday that President Castro had ordered him to comply with the law and to keep her informed. A presidency source said Castro would not comment publicly until the Supreme Court had reached its decision.

WILLING TO SURRENDER

The former leader’s legal defense issued a statement earlier Tuesday saying there was no need to arrest Hernandez.

“Given Mr. Hernandez’s stated will to voluntarily submit to the extradition process, there is no need to proceed with the issuance of an arrest warrant or preventive arrest warrant, since his volunteered presence guarantees the normality of the procedure,” the statement said.

However, expectations have grown in recent months that Hernandez would face an extradition request after leaving office.

Last year, a U.S. judge sentenced Hernandez’s brother to life in prison plus 30 years for drug trafficking and the former president was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in another drug trafficking case in New York.