(October 5). This afternoon (Nicaraguan time), two gay men—Francis LaFrancq and Jan van den Broeck—were sentenced to five years in prison for pornography and prostitution following a four-day trial, which ended a month ago.
The pair was arrested on March 5 in Granada, along with three others (an 18-year old Nicaraguan employee, a US citizen operating a laundromat that serviced at LaFrancq’s and van den Broeck’s Hotel Joluva, and a Canadian who recently purchased property at the their nearby gay resort, Club Alegria). These three were acquitted.
At the time of the arrest, the Sandinista-run newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, reported through an anonymous “police source” that “that the premises operated as sites of sexual exploitation of children and adolescents, who were captured in slums of La Gran Sultana”--charges that have been discredited and which were unproven in court—nevertheless the judge found LaFrancq and van den Broeck guilty of all charges.
In Nicaragua, as in several other Latin American countries, adult prostitution is legal but organizing others for that purpose is illegal. The charge of pornography was based on sexual photos and videos of adults, which would hardly cause a ripple in most Western countries but are verboten in Nicaragua (as it is in neighboring countries like Costa Rica). None of the websites had photographs of anyone under the age of 18, and the owners enforced a strict policy prohibiting guests from bringing under-age persons onto the premises.
Homosexuality was decriminalized under the new penal code in 2008 which replaced a broadly written statute that mandated one to three years’ imprisonment for “anyone who induces, promotes and propagandizes or practices sexual intercourse between persons of the same sex commits the crime of sodomy and shall incur one to three years’ imprisonment.” Nevertheless, institutionalized homophobia remains the norm.
For weeks following the March arrests (about 18 other Nicaraguans and foreigners, including this author, were detained for about 24 hours), Sandinista-controlled television stations and newspapers carried new stories about the couple’s alleged efforts to promote a “gay paradise,” to recruit adolescents for prostitution, and to publish child pornography on the Web. Comments from newspaper readers included demands for the round up and expulsion of all gays from the country.
The police also organized a media event via a public meeting at a Diocesan school in Granada about “human trafficking and sexual exploitation,” using the hotel and club as examples. Meanwhile, at least one church minister led his congregation in prayer for the “eradication” of homosexuality with the goal of “freeing Granada of homosexuals.”
Many gay expats living in Nicaragua fled the country in a scene reminiscent of the gay witch-hunts in the United States during the 1950s.
The Belgium businessmen, LaFrancq and van den Broeck, both in their early 50s, had operated Hotel Joluva, a popular gay hotel in downtown Granada since 2006 before launching Club Alegria three years ago.
Interview with Jan van de Broeck & Francis DeFranc, owners of Hotel Joluva
In addition to their businesses, the couple had established a gay activist website in Nicaragua, organized donations to local families, donated funds to improve a local road, and also supported through donations from their hotel guests the work of a local woman who fed homeless youth, which resulted in a Global Heroes Award.
The "Chavalos de Granada" project provides meals, medical, and other services to street kids in Nicaragua. Cited as "Global Heroes," this video features the work of Dona Esperanza, the owner of a little market food stall, and Jan Van de Broeck, proprietor of Hotel Joluva and co-developer of Club Alegria, whose guests and residents have contributed to the project. Now, due to Jan and Francis' incarceration, hundreds of these children may starve.
Perhaps because of these accomplishments, a Nicaraguan judge (despite protests by the prosecutor and police) had released the five defendants in late March pending their trial, which began on September 3. While awaiting trial, van den Broeck kept supporters informed with a blog, “Friends of Joluva,” which alleged problems posed by the Nicaraguan police. These ranged from the dismantling of their truck (there was no money to repair a police vehicle), theft of property from the resort, and systemic intimidation and police “shakedowns.”
In late August, two weeks prior to their trial, the government successfully appealed the defendants’ bail, resulting in their re-incarceration. This, according to the couple, materially affected the ability to defend themselves, as the defendants were unable to consult with their attorneys for 10 days.
Potential witnesses reported police harassment and intimidation during the months leading up to the trial. Some fled to Costa Rica. According to van de Broeck, “In the days before our trial, the police made several visits to supposed victims and witnesses, offering them confiscated computers and TVs if they wanted to testify against us.”
Meanwhile, the government took possession of Club Alegria as a “crime scene,” which was then appropriated by the police for personal use. The judge has ordered all properties returned to their owners.
The four-day trial ended in the very early morning hours of Thursday, September 6, at Granada’s District Criminal Court with Judge Alcides Munoz German pronouncing the guilty verdict. Returning to the same courtroom three weeks later, defendants LaFrancq and van den Broeck respectfully listened as the judge passed sentencing. The couple plans to appeal and is seeking donations to fund their efforts.
Appeals, however, take time—especially in Nicaragua. The most egregious case recently concluded with the successful appeal and release of US citizen Jason Puracal, who served two years of a 22 year sentence for money laundering, drug trafficking, and organized crime.
Jason Puracal recently went through a similar experience and miraculously managed to be freed.
The United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary detention had declared his imprisonment arbitrary. As Congressman Adam Smith (D-Wash) underscored, "They presented no evidence of a crime here. They have simply kidnapped and held him for a period of time and that is not in compliance with international law, it's not even in compliance with Nicaraguan law.” Further, Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project which also championed Puracal’s release, observed: "If the United States government does not vigorously fight for Jason's immediate release… they will know they can confiscate your property, throw you in prison and you will be powerless. We will all be at risk when we travel."
By Dr. James T. Sears
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