From Brooklyn to Bolivian rice venture, prison and Sean Penn’s help

Jacob Ostreicher, 54, wheeled by Sean Penn last month in Bolivia, says an accusation that he laundered drug money is false. (Photo: Associated Press)
New York Times | 1 January 2013


But Mr. Ostreicher’s venture has landed him in what, by his account, is a nightmare that has included 18 months in a notorious Bolivian prison and a lengthy battle with corrupt Bolivian prosecutors bent on stealing his business.

His arrest has turned into an international affair that has drawn in the State Department and the actor-director Sean Penn, who traveled to Bolivia to make a public appeal for Mr. Ostreicher’s release from prison in December.

Mr. Penn’s lobbying appeared to persuade the Bolivian authorities to relent, at least partly. Mr. Ostreicher was allowed out of prison on bail, but he remains under house arrest in Bolivia.

At the same time, more than a dozen Bolivian officials — including prosecutors and the chief legal counselor in the Interior Ministry — have now themselves been thrown into prison, charged with trying to extort Mr. Ostreicher’s assets.

In a telephone interview from his home in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Mr. Ostreicher, 54, professed his innocence and criticized Bolivian and American authorities. His voice was often weak from the effects of a lengthy hunger strike during which he lost 70 pounds.

The Bolivian prosecutors, he said, saw an opportunity to steal at least $16 million in equipment and $20 million in rice from his business. He said prosecutors had trumped up accusations that he laundered drug money.

“They put me in jail without a single shred of evidence,” Mr. Ostreicher said. “I felt like a lost soul, a dog.”

The Bolivian government insists that despite the subsequent corruption allegations against the prosecutors, investigators had valid suspicions about Mr. Ostreicher’s activities.

Carlos Romero, the interior minister, said Mr. Ostreicher had been arrested because of his involvement in a land deal with a convicted Brazilian drug trafficker. “Surely this made the entities charged with investigating these matters believe that it was very possible that there was some illegal link with Mr. Ostreicher,” Mr. Romero said.

By Bolivian standards, Mr. Ostreicher’s treatment may not be all that unusual.

Roberto Desogus, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, told American diplomats last July that Mr. Ostreicher was “yet another victim of a brutally slow, inefficient, underfunded and corrupt judicial system,” Mr. Desogus’s office said.

Still, Mr. Ostreicher’s supporters, including Dov Hikind, a Democratic New York State assemblyman from Borough Park, and Christopher H. Smith, a Republican United States representative from New Jersey, have assailed the State Department for what they said was its indifferent response.

Elizabeth A. Finan, a department spokeswoman, said consular officials had visited Mr. Ostreicher in prison more than 20 times and frequently pressed Bolivian officials for “a prompt and fair hearing of the facts.”

Mr. Ostreicher, an Orthodox Jew, said that as far as he knew, anti-Semitism did not play a role in how Bolivian prosecutors handled his case.

Mr. Penn intervened after the Aleph Institute, an organization that aids Jewish prisoners, contacted him. He is known for his outspoken left-wing views, including his championing of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a fierce opponent of the United States. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, a socialist, is a close ally of Mr. Chavez.

After speaking with Mr. Morales, Mr. Penn was able to visit Mr. Ostreicher in Palmasola Prison.

A few days before Mr. Ostreicher’s release on Dec. 18, Mr. Penn held a news conference, with Mr. Ostreicher at his side, connected to an intravenous feeding tube. “There is a cancer attacking at Bolivia’s heart,” Mr. Penn declared, referring to official corruption.

“Jacob and his family are living a nightmare of human abuse,” he said. “And this is a moment for me to call on my Bolivian brothers and sisters to lend their courage and compassion on behalf of a man known by all parties — known by all parties — to be totally innocent of any criminal activity.”

Mr. Penn did not explain why he decided to get involved in Mr. Ostreicher’s case.

In the telephone interview, Mr. Ostreicher praised Mr. Penn, saying: “Not too many people love Americans more than Sean Penn. Sean Penn helped me because I’m an innocent American.”

Mr. Ostreicher, a grandfather of 11, is the son of Holocaust survivors. He said that around the World War II era, his parents and extended family were able to transfer assets to Switzerland, where Andre Zolty, a lawyer in Geneva, was most recently handling their investments.

In 2008, Mr. Zolty, who has a specialty in agriculture, was convinced by a Colombian lawyer who had worked for him, Claudia Liliana Rodriguez, that there was money to be made in farming rice in Bolivia’s lowlands. He urged Mr. Ostreicher to invest.

Mr. Ostreicher traveled to Bolivia periodically to check on the enterprise and became suspicious that Ms. Rodriguez was skimming money. He reported her to the Bolivian authorities, and she is now in jail.

But one of the farmland parcels she had bought belonged to Maximiliano Dorado, who had been convicted in Brazil on drug charges and had escaped to Bolivia. Prosecutors investigating Ms. Rodriguez said they concluded that Mr. Ostreicher could be entangled in the laundering of “capital of dubious origin.”

The prosecutors never produced evidence to charge him formally. Nevertheless, Mr. Ostreicher ended up in June 2011 as the only American in Palmasola Prison, an experience he described as “sheer terror.”

It is a huge complex with 3,500 prisoners and is run internally by an inmates’ committee, although guards ring the perimeter.

Those close to him say Mr. Ostreicher was assaulted and humiliated until he paid money to committee functionaries. Before his hunger strike, he was able to obtain kosher food, and his wife took him matzos for Passover.

Mr. Ostreicher, who does not know when he will be able to return to the United States, said he was grateful to have survived.

“When I was in prison, I was thinking about Sean Penn’s movie ‘Dead Man Walking,’ ” he said. “When they dragged me like a dog into the courtroom, I felt like a dead man walking.”

A correspondent for The New York Times contributed reporting from Bolivia.

Who's involved?

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