Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez arrived at his first extradition hearing in Tegucigalpa on Wednesday in handcuffs and shackles, as the United States is seeking to bring him into the country to face drug-trafficking charges.
A scuffle broke out between duelling crowds in front of the justice ministry where Hernandez’s hearing took place in the capital, including pushing and shoving as well as rock-throwing. Police intervened and quickly separated the protesters.
“You are not alone! There is a great political party that supports you,” one supporter of Hernandez’s right-wing National Party (NP) told local broadcaster TSI, while backers of the leftist Libre Party that recently ousted the NP from power celebrated his fall from grace.
Hernandez, 53, governed the Central American nation for eight years until last month and now faces a US extradition request issued on Tuesday that seeks to force him to face drug-trafficking charges in US courts.
The presiding judge – whose name authorities are withholding for his protection – would on Wednesday inform Hernandez of the claims made against him by the US so that he can present a defence, judicial spokesman Melvin Duarte told the AFP news agency.
His appearance in court comes after months of swirling speculation over whether the US was planning to request Hernandez’s extradition when he left office. Castro replaced him as president in January.
Police on Tuesday arrested Hernandez from his home in the capital in a spectacle carried live on local television after the ex-president and one-time Washington ally pledged his cooperation. Officers cuffed his hands and feet, and fit him with a bullet-proof vest as he was taken into custody.
A US Embassy document seen by the Reuters news agency alleged that Hernandez was part of an operation to transfer massive amounts of cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela via Honduras to the US.
The document further claims that he received millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for providing protection to traffickers.
Hernandez has denied all wrongdoing and has previously attempted to cast aspersions on the prosecutors’ evidence, while also highlighting his past support from US officials.
Last year, a US judge sentenced Hernandez’s brother and former congressman, Tony Hernandez, to life in prison plus 30 years in a major cocaine trafficking case. The former president was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in another drug trafficking case in New York.
Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Hernandez of having been “engaged in significant corruption by committing or facilitating acts of corruption and narco-trafficking and using the proceeds of illicit activity to facilitate political campaigns”.