NEW YORK (JTA) – Supporters say he’s an innocent man caught up in the tentacles of a corrupt Latin American regime.
Authorities in Bolivia, however, allege that he’s a shady businessman with ties to drug dealers and money launderers.
What’s certain is that Jacob Ostreicher, a 53-year-old Chasidic Jew from New York, is in a state of limbo, sitting in a jail in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz waiting to be tried or released on bail.
Four weeks ago, in a bid to pressure authorities to expedite the handling of his case, Ostreicher began a hunger strike.
“Every human rights violation is being broken in my case,” he told JTA this week in a telephone interview from prison. “I have no alternative to getting my freedom unless I become ill and it becomes a humanitarian issue.”
The hunger strike he launched April 15 follows 10 months of appeals to the U.S. State Department. His wife, Miriam Ungar, organized a protest on Ostreicher’s behalf on May 3 opposite Bolivia’s United Nations mission.
Ostreicher, a father of five from the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, belonged to a group of investors led by Andre Zolty of the Swiss firm Lexinter that sunk $25 million into growing rice in lush eastern Bolivia. He was arrested last June by Bolivian police. During his arraignment, the judge alleged that Ostreicher did business with “people wanted in their countries because of links with drug trafficking and money laundering.”
The judge also determined that Ostreicher should not be allowed to post bail because “being free, the accused could destroy [or] change evidence that could lead the attorney general to discover the truth.”
Since then Ostreicher, who maintains his innocence, has been waiting. He has cycled through multiple court hearings, three judges, three prosecutors and four defense attorneys. One judge released him from jail in September, only to retract the order and send him back less than a week later. As of now the case is without a judge.
While the case has dragged on, some of the 40 million pounds of rice harvested from Ostreicher’s fields and later seized by the Bolivian government have begun to disappear.
The head of the Bolivian agency in charge of seized property, Moises Aguilera, told The Associated Press in December that the rice had to be sold because otherwise it would spoil. But Ostreicher’s partners accuse the Bolivian government of trying to profit from the confiscated rice.
“They’re trying to put their hands on our assets,” Zolty told JTA. “The lawyers are all corrupted.”
Transparency International, a global corruption monitor, ranks Bolivia 118th out of 183 countries on governmental transparency.
Bolivian authorities have declined to discuss the details of the case publicly.
“We sent inquiries regarding this case to the Bolivian judicial system, but we haven’t got any answer,” Pablo Menacho, Bolivia’s consular officer in Washington for political affairs, told JTA.
Ostreicher’s saga began when he joined Zolty’s partnership in June 2008 and traveled to Bolivia to see the rice business firsthand. Over the course of several trips from 2008 to 2010, Ostreicher says he was never able to inspect the books of the Bolivian rice fields because the manager, Claudia Liliana Rodriguez Espitia, was never around.
“She always gave excuses,” Ostreicher said.
Eventually, Ostreicher said, he came to believe that Rodriguez was stealing millions of dollars from the investors. He convinced Zolty to fire Rodriguez, and Ostreicher took over the business.
When Rodriguez disappeared soon after leaving the venture, Ostreicher took out a full-page ad in a major local newspaper offering a $25,000 reward to whoever could find her.
While police investigated Rodriguez for corruption, they discovered that she had purchased a portion of the rice fields from the brother of her drug dealer boyfriend, Maximiliano Dorado.
Bolivian federal prosecutors began to question Ostreicher in March 2011. He continued to travel back and forth to the United States, and approached the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia; Ostreicher says U.S. officials told him not to worry.
“The embassy told me I should be honest with the investigation. That’s what I did,” Ostreicher said. “I wish the U.S. Embassy had told me to get the hell out of the country.”
An embassy official told JTA that he could not comment on private conversations.
On the eve of Shavuot last year, when Ostreicher was scheduled to fly home to New York, prosecutors called him in for another round of questioning. Anxious to get home for the holiday, Ostreicher asked if he could come to their office to finish the deposition as soon as possible. He arrived on June 3, responded to questions and thanked the prosecutor for adjusting his schedule.
Moments later, Ostreicher was arrested. The grandfather of 11 says he was shoved into a cell with no toilet or shower that stank of urine and feces.
The next day at his arraignment, the judge charged Ostreicher with being “the representative of Andre Zolty” and having “commercial relations with Maximiliano Dorado, both people wanted in their countries because of links with drug trafficking and money laundering … proving the circle between Andre Zolty, Maxi Dorado … and Claudia Liliana Rodríguez Espitia.”
Ostreicher claims he has given the court documentation proving the legal origin of his business’ funds and submitted proof from Interpol that Zolty has never run afoul of the law.
Bolivian authorities apparently were not convinced. In March, one federal prosecutor told AP that the case was still in its “preparatory phase.”
Ostreicher’s wife says State Department officials have told the family only that they are monitoring the situation and have raised the case with the Bolivian foreign minister.
By launching his hunger strike, in which he drinks only water, Ostreicher is trying to turn the case into a humanitarian issue. The family has not tried to enlist Jewish organizations to lobby on Ostreicher’s behalf because they want it to be a diplomatic, not a parochial, issue.
“I’ve never asked anybody for help,” Ostreicher said. “My children are lying to my grandchildren that the reason I’m not coming home is that I have a farm and I need to take care of my cows. That’s why I’m going to people I don’t know.”