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Honduras ex-President Hernandez denies taking drug bribes at US trial

FILE PHOTO: Honduras former President Juan Orlando Hernandez is being transported to the U.S., in Tegucigalpa

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez on Tuesday took the witness stand at his U.S. drug trafficking trial and denied taking bribes from cartel members in exchange for protecting their U.S.-bound cocaine shipments.

Hernandez, 55, described himself as an ardent opponent of drug trafficking during his tenure leading the Central American country from 2014 to 2022. He pointed to his administration's military cooperation with the United States, and his frequent visits to Washington to visit U.S. officials.

"I had a policy against all those people because I could not stand them," Hernandez testified, referring to drug traffickers. "They did a lot of damage in the country."

Under questioning by defense lawyer Raymond Colon, Hernandez said he did not meet with or accept bribes from convicted drug traffickers. They included Mexican kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who prosecutors allege gave Hernandez a $1 million bribe.

Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to three counts of drug trafficking conspiracy and illegal weapons possession. His lawyers have said prosecutors are relying on testimony from convicted criminals seeking revenge for Hernandez's anti-drug policies and hoping to lower their own prison sentences.

During Hernandez's presidency, Honduras received more than $50 million in U.S. anti-narcotics assistance, and tens of millions of dollars in security and military aid. Hernandez also won support from former U.S. President Donald Trump for cracking down on drugs and migration.

But the Justice Department now says Hernandez ran Honduras as a "narco-state." Prosecutors say he used drug cash to bribe officials to manipulate voting results in his favor during Honduras' 2013 and 2017 presidential elections.

Under cross-examination by prosecutor Kyle Wirshba, Hernandez said drug traffickers "try" to support all politicians in Honduras, but that did not include him.

"So your testimony is that you're the only honest politician in Honduras, is that right?" Wirshba asked.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel ruled Hernandez did not have to answer that question.

The trial began two weeks ago. Jurors have heard testimony from several convicted drug traffickers about bribes paid to Hernandez.

Closing arguments are expected to begin on Wednesday after Hernandez finishes testifying. Hernandez faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years and up to life in prison if convicted on all counts.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New YorkEditing by Marguerita Choy and Bill Berkrot)