Jailed soccer official contracts Coronavirus in Florida prison

Juan Ángel Napout, a former FIFA vice president, was convicted after a 2017 trial in Brooklyn.

By Tariq Panja

Juan Ángel Napout, a former vice president of soccer’s governing body FIFA serving a nine-year sentence for corruption, has tested positive for the coronavirus inside a Miami federal prison. The positive result came days after a federal judge denied his appeal for compassionate release.

Lawyers for Napout, 62, a Paraguayan who was the head of South American soccer at the time of his arrest in 2015, have since April cited the risk of coronavirus in an effort to get him released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami. Last week, Judge Pamela K. Chen of U.S. District Court, who oversaw Napout’s 2017 trial in Brooklyn, N.Y., decided to put off a final decision, saying she wanted more time to evaluate the measures being taken to contain the spread of the virus at the jail.

Despite the prison’s efforts, including severe lockdown measures, several inmates and prison employees have contracted the virus, and the number of cases continues to grow. According to the latest figures published by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 93 inmates and 10 correctional officers have contracted the virus at the Miami facility, which holds about 1,000 inmates.

Based on Napout’s positive test result, his lawyer, Marc A. Weinstein, said in a telephone interview, “We are asking once again for the court to grant Mr. Napout a compassionate release due to the deadly and rampant pandemic that has hit his prison facility.

“When we asked for this relief in April it seemed inevitable that we would get to this point. Now the inevitable has happened: Mr. Napout has tested positive and his life is in danger. The court did not intend to impose a death sentence at the time the sentence was imposed and should take the appropriate steps now to insure that is not the sentence that he suffers.”

An official at the Miami prison said regulations prohibited it from commenting on Napout’s health.

The U.S. Justice Department’s case against Napout and other senior FIFA officials — begun with a series of dawn raids at a Zurich hotel in May and December 2015 — shook the soccer governing body and led to the arrest or ouster of a number of top officials, including several, like Napout, who had served on its decision-making executive committee. Many of the soccer officials and business executives who were named in the U.S. indictments later pleaded guilty. Napout did not.

In December 2017, he was convicted and received a nine-year sentence after a jury found him guilty of one count of racketeering conspiracy and two counts of wire fraud conspiracy. He is scheduled to be released in August 2025.

The spread of the virus in Miami’s prisons has alarmed both inmates and guards, with union officials in recent days warning of a looming crisis and raising alarms about the health risks to those inside the facility.

Chen, the judge, noted the rise in the number of cases at the prison at last week’s hearing but said they did not pass the threshold to consider Napout for release.

“That is certainly a significant factor, and I understand why the defendant thinks it substantially strengthens his argument for compassionate release, but I still do not feel that compassionate release is warranted at this time,” Chen said at the hearing last Wednesday. Compassionate release, she pointed out, “has historically been intended to redress situations where an inmate is actually suffering from frequently a fatal disease or imminent death.” Chen scheduled the next hearing for July 29.

“I don’t accept the premise that this is not a situation that can’t be controlled,” she said. “I don’t accept the premise that Mr. Napout, at least at this point in time, is at imminent risk of contracting COVID.”

The Miami prison began full lockdown measures July 7, reducing contact between prisoners and limiting their time outside their cells.

Napout said by email, and prison statistics confirmed, that about 10 percent of the facility was now infected with the virus, with several new cases confirmed since his hearing last week. M. Kristin Mace, an assistant U.S. attorney, said Napout should not be released because he was not in “the most high-risk group.”

“The DOJ said everything was good and that I wasn’t at risk and yet I got the virus,” Napout wrote.