Juan Orlando Hernandez says he was ‘wrongly accused’ at sentencing hearing for conviction on drugs and weapons charges.

Juan Orlando Hernandez, the former president of Honduras once seen as an important US ally with tough-on-crime politics, has been sentenced to 45 years in prison for his conviction on drugs and weapons charges.

A Manhattan jury in March found Hernandez, 55, guilty of accepting millions of dollars in bribes to protect United States-bound cocaine shipments belonging to traffickers he once publicly proclaimed to combat.

US District Judge Kevin Castel passed down the sentence in a Manhattan courtroom on Wednesday.

“I am innocent,” the 55-year-old Hernandez, who led the Central American nation from 2014 until 2022, said at his sentencing. “I was wrongly and unjustly accused.”

Hondurans at home and abroad had cheered the conviction, celebrating it as a rare instance of accountability for corruption and deceit by a member of the country’s ruling class.

In March, the jury found that the former leader, often known by his initials JOH, had taken millions of dollars in bribes to shield large shipments of cocaine bound for the US.

Prosecutors had asked for a life sentence, arguing that it would send a firm message to other politicians who use their power to protect powerful criminal groups.

“Without corrupt politicians like the defendant, the kind of large-scale, international drug trafficking at issue in this case, and the rampant drug-related violence that follows, is difficult if not impossible,” prosecutors wrote on Monday.

During a two-week trial, prosecutors said Hernandez used drug money to bribe officials and manipulate voting results during Honduras’s 2013 and 2017 presidential elections. Several convicted traffickers testified they bribed Hernandez.

Testifying in his own defence, Hernandez denied taking bribes from drug cartels.

His lawyers, meanwhile, accused the convicted traffickers of being out for revenge over Hernandez’s anti-drug policies.

JOH’s brother Tony Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison in the US in 2021 on drug charges.

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