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Former Honduran President Appears in US Court on Drug, Weapons Charges

FILES - In this file photo taken on April 21, 2022, Honduran former President Juan Orlando Hernandez (C) is escorted by police officers at the Honduran National Directorate of Special Forces in Tegucigalpa before his extradition to the United States.

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a U.S. federal courtroom in New York on illicit drug trafficking and weapons charges.

U.S. prosecutors allege that Hernandez allowed tons of cocaine from Venezuela and Colombia to travel through Honduras on its way to the United States beginning in 2004, while protecting drug traffickers from investigation, in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes.

The judge set Hernandez’s next court date for September 28, and said his trial could begin next January.

Hernandez was arrested in February at his home in Tegucigalpa at the request of U.S. authorities, just weeks after leaving office after eight years in power. He was extradited last month after the Honduras Supreme Court rejected Hernandez’s final appeal to avoid extradition.

Speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s hearing, Hernandez’s lawyer, Raymond Colon, said his client was being held as if he were “a prisoner of war.” Colon claimed the ex-president is being confined to his cell 24 hours a day, and that he has been largely blocked from meeting one-on-one with Hernandez.

Protesters gathered outside the courthouse Tuesday to celebrate Hernandez’s detention, accusing the former president of causing chaos and suffering during his time in office.

“We Hondurans believe that justice will come this time,” said Honduran activist Lida Perdomo, “that he will be found guilty, and at minimum, be given life imprisonment for all the damage he has committed, and not just against the Honduran people but with the cocaine he has introduced into the United States. And all that goes with his responsibility for the massive migrant exodus from Honduras as a result of the violence caused by narco traffickers.”

Hernandez was once a key regional ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump. He has denied the allegations, portraying himself as a fierce opponent of drug cartels and accusing traffickers of smearing him to get revenge and lighten their sentences.

Hernandez was repeatedly implicated as a co-conspirator in his brother’s 2019 drug trafficking trial by New York prosecutors. The brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, was found guilty of drug and weapons charges and sentenced to life in prison.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.