Honduran ex-president pleads not guilty to drug, arms charges; claims he's treated like 'prisoner of war'

Juan Orlando Hernández, extradited to the US last month, pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court

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Juan Orlando Hernández, the former president of Honduras, pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court Tuesday following his recent extradition to the U.S. on drug-trafficking and weapons charges

As U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel asked how he pleaded, the 53-year-old defendant pushed the microphone towards him and said in Spanish: "Not guilty, your honor." 

Hernández entered the courtroom with his right hand on his chest and smiling and saluting his supporters in the audience. The courtroom was packed with about 60 people, including Latin American journalists and several supporters, but also several Hondurans protesting him. Donning a pink t-shirt under a navy prison jumpsuit, a mask and reading glasses, he was not shackled or handcuffed. 

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Castel set a motion schedule and set the next court hearing for Sept. 28, 2022, at 11 a.m. 

In this courtroom sketch, Juan Orlando Hernández, center, speaks into a microphone while pleading not guilty to drug trafficking and weapons charges flanked by his lead defense attorney Raymond Colon, right, Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in New York. The former Honduran president pleaded not guilty to charges that he received millions of dollars from 2004 to 2022 to support a drug trade that delivered hundreds of thousands of kilos of drugs to the U.S. 

In this courtroom sketch, Juan Orlando Hernández, center, speaks into a microphone while pleading not guilty to drug trafficking and weapons charges flanked by his lead defense attorney Raymond Colon, right, Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in New York. The former Honduran president pleaded not guilty to charges that he received millions of dollars from 2004 to 2022 to support a drug trade that delivered hundreds of thousands of kilos of drugs to the U.S.  (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams)

The judge also set at tentative trial date for Jan. 17, 2023.

Defense raised the issue of the defendant's conditions at Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn, a federal facility in the Sunset Park area of the borough, complaining about the way the former Honduran president has been treated, including that he's been held "24 hours a day in solitary confinement". 

Demonstrators gather outside Manhattan federal court to protest former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who pleaded not guilty to charges that he received millions of dollars from 2004 to 2022 to support a drug trade that delivered hundreds of thousands of kilos of drugs to the U.S., Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in New York. 

Demonstrators gather outside Manhattan federal court to protest former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who pleaded not guilty to charges that he received millions of dollars from 2004 to 2022 to support a drug trade that delivered hundreds of thousands of kilos of drugs to the U.S., Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in New York.  (AP Photo/David R. Martin)

"He's been treated like a prisoner of war," defense attorney Raymond Colon said, adding that the conditions are "psychologically debilitating." Hernández nodded as his attorney was speaking. 

Colon then said that his client "is not a terrorist" and has no history of violence, as some of the protesters in the courtroom laughed sarcastically. 

As the judge left the bench, Hernández waived at his supporters, and the protesters on the opposite side of the room shouted in Spanish: "Five life sentences." Outside the New York City federal courthouse earlier, a handful of protesters held signs and shouted that Hernández was a "narco dictator." 

Demonstrators stand outside Manhattan federal court to protest former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who pleaded not guilty to charges that he received millions of dollars from 2004 to 2022 to support a drug trade that delivered hundreds of thousands of kilos of drugs to the U.S., Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in New York. 

Demonstrators stand outside Manhattan federal court to protest former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who pleaded not guilty to charges that he received millions of dollars from 2004 to 2022 to support a drug trade that delivered hundreds of thousands of kilos of drugs to the U.S., Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in New York.  (AP Photo/David R. Martin)

Hernández served two terms as the president of the Central American nation from 2014 through 2022. 

In and around that time frame, the Justice Department alleges he participated in a corrupt and violent drug-trafficking conspiracy resulting in hundreds of thousands of kilograms of cocaine being imported into the U.S. Hernández 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. 

Demonstrators stand outside Manhattan federal court to protest former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez who appeared in court on drug trafficking and weapons charges, Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in New York. 

Demonstrators stand outside Manhattan federal court to protest former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez who appeared in court on drug trafficking and weapons charges, Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in New York.  (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams)

First as a congressman, then as President of the Honduran National Congress, and finally the two-term President of Honduras, Hernández was allegedly paid millions of dollars in cocaine proceeds which he used to enrich himself, finance his political campaigns, and commit voter fraud while the people of Honduras endured conditions of poverty and rampant violence, the Justice Department said. 

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While campaigning for president of Honduras, Hernández is accused of accepting approximately $1 million in drug-trafficking proceeds from the notorious Mexican drug kingpin "El Chapo" as a bribe, agreeing to continue to protect the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug-trafficking activities in Honduras.

Hernández was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa in February at the request of U.S. authorities. Honduras’ Supreme Court rejected his appeal of a judge’s decision favoring extradition. 

He was extradited to the U.S. on April 21. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.