Development Follows Arrests of Officials, Penn Intervention
In a dramatic breakthrough following over a year and a half of incarceration without the presentation of any actual evidence, Borough Park businessman Jacob Ostreicher was released on Tuesday on bail, with the stipulation that he remain under house arrest.
The 53-year-old – who in recent interviews has expressed fears that his life is in jeopardy due to potential revenge from government officials whose corruption in the case has been exposed – was outfitted in a flak jacket and helmet when he appeared at the hearing in Santa Cruz, according to reports on the Bolivian news website Erbol.com. Overjoyed by the new verdict, Ostreicher hugged his wife and lawyers when Ninth Criminal Court Judge Eneas Fatima Gentile stated his decision. The same judge had denied a request to release Ostreicher on bail on November 23 on the grounds that he did not have any family in Bolivia.
The bail, which was set at an amount that is equivalent to approximately $14,500, was posted immediately for the prisoner. “After thirty hearings and after being detained for over eighteen months, we have obtained the freedom of Mr. Ostreicher,” declared defense attorney Jimmy Montaño. “The process still continues, but we have paid a deposit of 100,000 Bolivianos (Bolivian currency), making my client’s freedom effective immediately.”
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who has played an active role in the effort to obtain his constituent’s release, described the latest development as “the beginning of the end of Jacob Ostreicher’s nightmare.”
“This is the first really good news we’ve received regarding Jacob and all of us are extremely optimistic,” Hikind said in a statement. “We’re hoping to have Jacob reunited with his family in Borough Park very soon.” Hikind added, “I couldn’t be prouder of our community for staying involved with the Ostreichers—for caring as much as they do and constantly keeping Jacob’s situation in mind. Keep praying. The Al-mighty hears us.”
The Orthodox Jewish community – along with a number of high-profile supporters from beyond – has long expressed serious concern about the fate of Ostreicher, who has been held in the notoriously dangerous Palmasola prison in Bolivia for nearly 19 months on highly dubious charges of money laundering despite the lack of any visible evidence. Prior to his sudden release on bail on Tuesday, an appeals panel had ruled against immediately releasing Ostreicher, despite the headline-grabbing arrests of Bolivian government officials on charges that they colluded to have him arrested as part of an extortion attempt against the Brooklyn businessman. Additionally, Ostreicher has been visited by actor Sean Penn – well-known for his liberal activism – who has intervened with the Bolivian government on Ostreicher’s behalf and raised international attention to the case.
Instead of reexamining the Ostreicher case, the two judges on the appeals panel had sent it back to the trial judge, ordering her to reconsider favorable evidence she had earlier discarded at the urging of a government official, who is one of those currently under arrest. The outcry over Ostreicher’s lengthy incarceration without presentation of any evidence led to the revelation of an extortion ring allegedly operated by the chief legal advisor in Bolivia’s Interior Ministry, which included the participation of two prosecutors. The arrests took place following a meeting between Penn and President Evo Morales. Penn has lauded Morales’ assertiveness in going after the ring.
Ostreicher, a fervently Orthodox father of five and grandfather of 11, was arrested in June of 2011 by Bolivian police on the charge that he conducted business with “people wanted in their countries because of links with drug trafficking and money laundering.” Ostreicher was a key member of a group of investors who put $25 million into a rice production venture in Eastern Bolivia.
Last month, Bolivian authorities arrested eight people, including high-level government officials and the judge who originally ordered Ostreicher’s arrest, for attempted extortion in the case. Separately, Ostreicher was moved from the Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz to a prison hospital, where he is in poor medical condition as a result of both a hunger strike he has conducted to protest his imprisonment as well as the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
In conversations with reporters and notable visitors, Ostreicher has stated that heavily corrupt Bolivian officials desired to have him languish in jail so that they could sell for their own profit the 18,000 metric tons of rice they illicitly confiscated from him. Calling the case against him the “scam of the century,” he also claimed that they were planning to extort money from him in exchange for their pledge to engineer his release.
According to the Bolivian legal codes, an individual can be held in confinement for up to 18 months without formal charges – a deadline that Ostreicher has now passed.
Expressing the outrage and deep concern of numerous American elected officials, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of a U.S. congressional subcommittee that oversees international human rights, declared before the latest verdict was announced, “The Bolivian authorities now have both a constitutional and moral obligation to see to it that Jacob’s case is adjudicated promptly and fairly, free from dilatory, obstructive tactics. I am confident that if a transparent and timely process is followed from this moment forward, Jacob will not only be released from his unjust incarceration, but he will also be exonerated from the allegations against him.”
Rep. Smith has held two congressional hearings on the case and personally met with Ostreicher in prison in June. “It is important to note that this case is not only about justice, but is also a grave humanitarian matter given Jacob’s rapidly deteriorating health. His family and friends desperately want him to come home where he can receive the medical attention he needs,” Smith said.
Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who has been monitoring the case for many months, spoke out similarly in recent weeks, demanding Ostreicher’s immediate release. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Nadler described the Bolivian authorities’ actions with regard to the case “a serious miscarriage of justice,” and he urged the Obama administration to press Bolivian authorities to expedite justice for Ostreicher. Nadler previously participated in a congressional hearing on the case and wrote letters to Bolivian and American government officials calling for due process rights for Ostreicher, who resides in Nadler’s congressional district.
“For too long, Mr. Ostreicher has been denied due process, and now the stark fact is that his continued imprisonment is in violation of Bolivian law,” wrote Nadler. “In addition, seven Bolivian officials have been arrested and charged with deliberately conspiring to rob and extort Mr. Ostreicher. These arrests raise serious doubts about the merits of the money laundering charges against him. There must be a full examination into the merits of his case, and those who have been charged with crimes against him should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
On May 3, 2012, supporters of Ostreicher initiated an online petition on the White House We the People website requesting that the Obama administration assist in the effort to free the businessman. Well over 35,000 people have since signed the petition. Also on May 3, hundreds of members of the Orthodox Jewish community attended a rally outside the Bolivian Mission in New York City, at which Hikind exhorted the Bolivian authorities to free Ostreicher from his apparently unjust imprisonment.
The active involvement in the case by Sean Penn, who has close ties to a number of left-wing third world heads of government, drew the attention of Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield, who issued a letter publicly expressing profound appreciation for the actor’s intervention on behalf of Ostreicher.
“On behalf of Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, I extend my personal and sincere thanks to Sean Penn for his tireless efforts in support of Jacob Ostreicher,” Greenfield stated in his letter. “While movie stars are not well-known in Borough Park, where most homes don’t have televisions, Sean Penn has become a household name as a result of his great humanitarian efforts and his dedication to achieving justice for Mr. Ostreicher and his family. I truly appreciate Mr. Penn’s refusal to stand by as an American citizen is subjected to these corrupt proceedings in Bolivia.”
Greenfield wrote further, “The case against Jacob Ostreicher has clearly been a sham since day one. I will continue to do everything I can to bring attention to this matter. As our community continues to speak out and demand justice for the Ostreicher family, my thanks goes out to Sean Penn for lending a powerful and persuasive voice to the effort to clear Jacob Ostreicher’s name and bring him home to his family in Brooklyn. May G-d repay Mr. Penn for this kindness.”