As earlier reported on TLS, American businessman Jacob Ostreicher, held in Bolivia for over a year without formal charges and without bail at the dangerous Palmasola prison run by inmates, was visited by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), chairman of the House panel that oversees international human rights.
Smith accompanied Ostreicher to a hearing Monday that was beset by irregularities, including Bolivian government officials challenging the judge’s authority and threatening to take actions against him if the hearing continued. The court proceeding was derailed when the judge, who openly resisted calls by several members of the Bolivian Ministry of Government to recuse himself, nonetheless opted to turn the issue over to a higher court, likely guaranteeing more months of delay. Numerous postponements have stretched Ostreicher’s imprisonment since his arrest in June 2011.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Smith said. “Jacob has been cooperative, patient to the extreme. There is no evidence offered against him. The rule of law must prevail in Bolivia. Innocent people must have a path to justice. He must be released.”
Smith, a leading human rights advocate in the U.S. Congress said the Ostreicher case has gone from obscurity to a global human rights concern.
“International scrutiny will increase, not decrease,” Smith said. “What was a relatively obscure case is now a growing international embarrassment for the Morales Government that runs Bolivia.”
The Congressman said he feels the local U.S. consular office truly cares about Ostreicher’s plight.
“We have been impressed by the compassion conveyed by the U.S. foreign service officers handling Jacob’s case now in Bolivia,” Smith said. “However, there is only so much they can do. This has risen to a government-to-government matter that requires the State Department—Secretary Clinton and her staff—to act strongly and directly on Jacob’s behalf.”
Smith visited with Ostreicher for several hours Tuesday and for nearly two hours Sunday. The jailed American has been on a hunger strike since April 15. Smith said that visually, Ostreicher, who operated a rice farming business prior to his unjustified imprisonment at the hands of the government, appears frail and anguished.
“He is on a hunger strike in protest of the injustices done to him,” Smith said. “His rice farm business has been stolen. He has lost 60 pounds and is increasingly weak. He has been subjected to repeated body searches, and jail blackouts. He seemed at the end of his rope, but was happy to see us, to know he wasn’t forgotten. No one should go through what he has had to go through.”
On June 6, the congressional subcommittee on human rights Smith chairs heard from Ostreicher’s desperate wife and daughter, as well a former FBI agent familiar with the case who also asserts there is no evidence against Ostreicher. Click here to access testimony video and other information about the June 6 hearing.
Ostreicher’s daughter, Chaya Weinberger, who lives in Lakewood, N.J. with her husband and their five children, has visited the Bolivian prison where her father is being held on numerous occasions and witnessed the dangerous conditions in which he lives. Her step-mother, Miriam Ungar, wife of Ostreicher, 53, also visited. Smith has been in contact with both in an attempt to free Ostreicher. Both testified at the congressional hearing, as did former FBI agent Steve Moore, known for his work on the Amanda Knox case in Italy. Moore told the human rights panel that Ostreicher was demonstratively and provably innocent, and said there is a complete lack of evidence to indicate that Ostreicher had participated in a crime in Bolivia.
In early June, Smith made a formal request of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to personally intervene in the case. The Assistant Secretary was in Cochabamba, Bolivia for a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly from June 3-5. Click here to read the full letter.
Ostreicher, a U.S. businessman who went to Bolivia to engage in a business venture, was arrested on June 3, 2011, and remains in Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz. At least 15 judicial hearings have been scheduled in his case, but only three transpired. Although the Bolivian government has produced no evidence that Ostreicher has committed any crime, there is no indication that it is preparing to release him. Under Bolivian law, he could languish in prison for another six months on preliminary, unsubstantiated charges connected to a police investigation.