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NJ lawmaker helps broker bail for Jewish man in Bolivia
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NJ lawmaker helps broker bail for Jewish man in Bolivia

'His life remains at risk,' says Chris Smith

An Orthodox American businessman imprisoned in a Bolivian jail for 18 months without formal charges has been granted bail as a result of pressure from celebrities and  U.S. lawmakers, including NJ Rep. Chris Smith (R-Dist.4).

Jacob Ostreicher of Brooklyn was released from Palmasola Prison in Santa Cruz Dec. 18. The announcement came in a statement from Smith and Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), who returned Dec. 9 from a bipartisan congressional delegation that met with him.

“I saw Jacob at his lowest in prison an when he was denied bail,” Smith told NJJN in a Dec. 19 interview from Washington. “Yesterday it was almost as if he couldn’t fathom it. Thirty times he’s been in court and 30 times he’s been denied.”

Ostreicher was arrested by Bolivian police after it was alleged that he did business with individuals engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering.  The flooring contractor belonged to a group of investors that sunk $25 million into growing rice in lush eastern Bolivia.

Smith, whose district includes parts of Mercer, Ocean, and Monmouth counties, chairs the House Subcommittee on Human Rights. Ostreicher’s daughter¸ Chaya Weinberger of Lakewood, is a constituent.

“The hardest part has been knowing he’s suffering every minute he is there,” Weinberger had told NJJN in June.

Since his imprisonment, her father has developed symptoms of Parkinson ’s disease, for which he is being treated, and was left weakened by a hunger strike to draw attention to his plight.

“He was shaking and taking a very strong medicine for Parkinson’s,” recalled Smith of his most recent meeting with Ostreicher. “Although he has significant shaking of the hands, his mind is as sharp as ever. He’s gained a few pounds since he ended his hunger strike. He’s got some gastro-intestinal issues; he’s been saying his stomach hurts. He’s going to be now getting a head to toe medical examination.”

In August, Smith had introduced the Justice for Imprisoned Americans Overseas Act — nicknamed Jacob’s Law — designed to ban entry into the country by officials of any foreign government complicit in violating the rights of imprisoned Americans.  He has held two congressional hearings in the case.

Smith said no evidence of wrongdoing was ever presented in the case. 

According to Smith, Ostreicher’s predicament is not uncommon under the “corrupt” Bolivian justice system, where “rogue prosecutors shake down” innocent people , confiscating their assets and throwing them in jail without formal charges. Ostreicher has lost his rice farming business.

In June, Smith met with Minister of Government Carlos Romero in La Paz to present evidence of manipulation of the court system, gaining the Bolivian leader’s assurance at the end of the two-hours  that he would launch an investigation.

“He [Romero] said last week he launched the investigation the day after we met,” said Smith. “He was true to his word.”

Ahead of Ostreicher's release, 10 people involved in the case were arrested on charges of corruption, including the legal adviser to the Ministry of Government, Fernando Rivera. Earlier this month, Smith and Velazquez met with Romero, as well as separately with Jacob, his lawyers, Acting Foreign Minister Elmer Catarina, Vice Foreign Minister Alfredo Rada, Vice Minister of Interior Affairs Jorge Perez and Attorney General Ramiro José Guerrero.

Smith noted the case has put an international spotlight on the many severe injustices of Bolivia’s legal system. Actor Sean Penn, who has also supported Ostreicher, attended a hearing in Santa Cruz the previous week. 

Smith said he expects the charges will be dismissed in the near future, expressing  hope the Ostreicher case, which has received extensive coverage in the Bolivian press, will be “the catalyst for change” for Bolivians in Ostreicher’s predicament.

Smith said Ostreicher is at an undisclosed  private residence.

“Don’t forget 10 high-ranking  Bolivian officials, including Fernando Rivera, are in the same prison as Jacob was, which is certainly justice,” he said. “He has been told he can come and go as would any person on bail. However, he was warned not to leave the residence at night. His life remains at risk every day that he remains in Bolivia, due to credible death threats against him.”

Smith said, however, “This is only the beginning of the end. Jacob has incurred permanent damage to his health and has lost over 18 precious months of his life with his wife, children and grandchildren.”

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