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Sean Penn rallies for Jewish man held in Bolivia

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Sean Penn attending the congressional hearing in Brooklyn, May 20, 2013. (Suzzane Pollak)

Sean Penn attending the congressional hearing in Brooklyn, May 20, 2013. (Suzzane Pollak)

Sean Penn’s second career as a social activist usually conjures images of the actor on a wind-rocked boat, rescuing victims of some kind of natural disaster—not sitting in a courtroom with an Orthodox Jewish family from Brooklyn. But that’s exactly what Penn was doing yesterday, when he attended a congressional hearing on behalf of a man being held on house arrest in Bolivia.

Jacob Ostreicher, a haredi father of five, invested money in a rice-growing venture in Bolivia and was in the country managing that business when he was arrested on suspicion of money laundering. Although there is no evidence against him, he has been accused of doing business with money launderers and drug traffickers. He’s been held there now for over two years.

At the hearing a handful of Congress members and Penn spoke out for Ostreicher, attesting to his innocence and calling for action.

Reading from his six-page statement, Penn urged Congress to write letters to sponsors of the Dakar Rally motorcycle race. In 2014, the race will go through Bolivia for the first time–and therefore bring in lots of money. He also spoke of poor conditions in Ostreicher’s prison, which he says “receives a delivery of body bags to the front gate on a weekly basis and feeds it’s prisoners 18-cents worth of mulchy broth twice daily from a trough.”

Sounds stranger than fiction, right?  Penn thinks so too. “As an actor, I have been in good movies and bad ones. I have never seen a worse movie, nor more arch-villainy on such a caricaturish or humanly diabolical level as I witnessed in that court room,” he said of the time about five months ago when Ostreicher was removed from prison and placed under house arrest.

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