Chaya Weinberger often lies awake at night as she thinks about her father languishing for more than a year in a notorious Bolivian prison on what are widely believed to be trumped-up accusations.
“The hardest part has been knowing he’s suffering every minute he is there,” said the Lakewood resident.
“Here you wouldn’t even allow a guilty person to live in the standards he’s living in. He’s at risk of being killed every second he’s there.”
Her father, Jacob Ostreicher, a 53-year-old flooring contractor from Brooklyn, is locked in Palmasola Prison in Santa Cruz, without charges. Bolivian law allows a person to be held without charges up to 18 months.
Ostreicher was arrested a year ago by Bolivian police after it was alleged that he did business with individuals engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering. Ostreicher belonged to a group of investors that sunk $25 million into growing rice in lush eastern Bolivia.
On June 6 the House Subcommittee on Human Rights, chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-Dist. 4), whose district includes parts of Mercer, Ocean and Monmouth countries, held a hearing on the Ostreicher case. On June 11, Smith met with Ostreicher at the prison, held a press conference, and met with Bolivian officials during a weeklong visit.
Smith said the investigative work of former FBI agent Steve Moore, who helped clear Amanda Knox of murder charges in Italy, made it evident to him that Ostreicher was being framed by a corrupt political system.
“An innocent man is languishing in prison and no one will help him,” Smith told NJJN in a phone conversation June 27 from the floor of the House. “I decided to go there for Jacob’s court hearing. He has had 17 court hearings. The family has gotten word from the State Department they should keep a low profile. But, they [the family] later realized obscurity makes the situation worse for Jacob.”
New York senators Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand and congressional representatives Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velazquez have written an open letter to the Bolivian government calling for Ostreicher to be granted bail.
“It’s a prison run by inmates,” said Weinberger in a phone interview. Her voice often broke as she spoke of Ostreicher, a father of five and grandfather of 11, who has been on a hunger strike since April 15 in an effort to draw attention to his case. She last saw him the end of March. “Inmates are just dumped there without a roof over their heads and have to fend for themselves.”
Recently, news outlets, including CNN, the Associated Press and ABC’s Nightline– which sent a crew to interview Ostreicher– have generated publicity. A web site has been set up, freejacobnow.com, and on-line petition drive has many thousands of signatures.
According to Transparency International, a non-profit group that tracks corruption, Bolivia ranks as one of the most corrupt nations in the Western Hemisphere.
Smith said in his decades of involvement in human rights abuses and human trafficking that began with the Soviet Jewry movement, he has found a constant flow of pressure and publicity is often the best way to resolve the situation.
Weinberger fears his case has been put on a back burner by the State Department, and Smith agrees.
“An American’s human rights have been massively violated and our government has not rallied in his favor,” said Smith.”The State Department says it’s monitoring the situation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should be down there. But there has not been one word from Secretary Clinton, or our embassy there. It should be on our embassy’s web site that any American businessman or woman who goes down there could meet the same fate as Jacob.”
In response to an NJJN inquiry, a State Department official who asked not to be identified denied the agency had not advocated strongly on Ostreicher’s behalf.
“Since Mr. Ostreicher's June 3, 2011, arrest, U.S. officials have been in frequent contact with Bolivian officials at the highest levels to advocate for due process under Bolivian law,” she said via e-mail. “We will continue to do so. The Chargé d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz and the Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, among others, have raised this case with top Bolivian officials and the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights more than 20 times in the past year. Consular officers visit Mr. Ostreicher whenever he permits them to do so and stand ready to visit more frequently. Consular officers have also attended every hearing in his case.”
For Weinberger, the mother of five children ages two to nine, the fight to free her father—or at least move him to a clinic because of his failing health — can’t come soon enough.
“My children have been going crazy wondering where their grandfather is,” she explained.. “What do I tell them? They’re so young.”