Jacob Ostreicher in U.S. after more than two years in Bolivia

Jacob Ostreicher, a New York businessman held in Bolivia since 2011, has returned to the United States, a U.S. State Department spokesman confirmed.

“Mr. Ostreicher arrived in the United States Monday morning,” a spokeswoman told JTA in an email, confirming an Associated Press report that Ostreicher was in the United States for the first time in more than two years.

The spokeswoman did not provide any details of his return. “We refer you to him regarding questions concerning his travel to the United States,” she said.

The Yeshiva World News in an article based on unnamed sources had reported that Ostreicher was not released by the government of Bolivia but rather escaped from the country.

An unnamed son of Ostreicher told the New Jersey newspaper The Lakewood Scoop that his father, who was under house arrest for the past year, was kidnapped in Bolivia and after a ransom payment he was returned to the United States.

Family members told the newspaper that Ostreicher had been missing for a week before they learned he had entered the United States. As of Monday night, the family had not spoken to Ostreicher, nor did they know where he was located.

Ostreicher, who had a flooring business in New York, invested money with a group involved in a rice-growing venture in Bolivia and was managing the business when he was arrested on suspicion of money laundering. He also was accused of doing business with drug traffickers.

However, in June, Bolivian authorities arrested 15 people — including government officials — on charges of engineering his arrest in hopes of extracting cash payment.

Despite those charges, Bolivia did not release Ostreicher, a haredi Orthodox father of five, and his case drew the attention of leading lawmakers in Congress, including Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Sean Penn, the movie actor and human rights activist.

“I am thrilled by the reports that Jacob Ostreicher, my constituent, who has been illegally detained in a Bolivian prison for two years, is finally free,” Nadler told JTA in a statement. “He has suffered greatly and his family has worked tirelessly for his freedom. I am overjoyed at the idea that they will soon be together.

“Mr. Ostreicher was the victim of a horrible miscarriage of justice and endemic corruption within the Bolivian justice system.”

Bolivian government officials told the AP they didn’t know whether Ostreicher had left the country, but said he would have had a difficult time leaving.

Sean Penn lobbies for Charedi man imprisoned in Bolivia

Actor Sean Penn urged a congressional hearing to pressure Bolivia to release a Charedi Orthodox father of five under house arrest in the country.

Penn appeared Monday at a hearing on the case of Jacob Ostreicher of Brooklyn, who has been held nearly two years in Bolivia on accusations that he was in business with drug traffickers and money launderers. No proof has ever been provided in court.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who has gone to Bolivia in an effort to free Ostreicher, held the hearing.

Penn, an Academy Award winner well known for his social activism, told the hearing that he has spoken to Bolivian President Evo Morales and believes that although Morales has the best of intentions, the judiciary is so corrupt in his country that the president is powerless.

Penn urged Congress to write letters to the corporate sponsors of the Dakar Rally motorcycle race, which in 2014 for the first time will go through Bolivia. As the race is a huge moneymaker for the participating countries, Penn said pressure should be exerted on the sponsors to demand the release of Ostreicher.

If Ostreicher is not freed, Penn said, the race should be rerouted to avoid Bolivia, depriving it of money and positive publicity.

The actor said he was “not only personally and thoroughly convinced of Mr. Ostreicher’s innocence, but particularly alarmed by a consensus both among Bolivian officials that the unevidenced prosecution against Jacob Ostreicher was standard operating procedure in the fundamentally corrupt Bolivian judiciary.”

Ostreicher invested in a rice-growing venture in Bolivia and was managing the business when he was arrested on suspicion of money laundering.

Penn said Ostreicher’s only crime was “to have brought a successful rice concession and well-paying jobs to Bolivia.”

Ostreicher’s wife, Miriam Ungar, told the hearing that Ostreicher does not believe he will ever be free and often unplugs his home phone because he is too depressed to speak with his family.

During the hearing, Smith said he would be reintroducing his bill, nicknamed “Jacob’s Law,” that would deny entry into the United States “to officials of any foreign government, including their immediate family members “who are involved in failing to allow due process or are involved in any human rights violations against a jailed American.”

Several other congressmen spoke at the 80-minute hearing, including Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), Eliot Engel, (D-N.Y.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

N.J. congressman Christopher Smith visits jailed Chasid in Bolivia

U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs human rights subcommittee, visited with a jailed American Chasidic man in Bolivia.

Smith (R-N.J.) accompanied American businessman Jacob Ostreicher this week to a hearing and argued against the Bolivian government’s charges against the New Yorker, a father of five.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Smith said in a statement. “Jacob has been cooperative, patient to the extreme. There is no evidence offered against him. The rule of law must prevail in Bolivia. Innocent people must have a path to justice. He must be released.”

Ostreicher was arrested a year ago by Bolivian police after it was alleged that he did business with “people wanted in their countries because of links with drug trafficking and money laundering.” Ostreicher, of the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, belonged to a group of investors that sunk $25 million into growing rice in lush eastern Bolivia.

He is on an extended hunger strike to protest his imprisonment by the Bolivian government.

“He has lost 60 pounds and is increasingly weak,” Smith said in the statement. “He has been subjected to repeated body searches and jail blackouts. He seemed at the end of his rope, but was happy to see us, to know he wasn’t forgotten. No one should go through what he has had to go through.”

Congress holds hearing on Chasid imprisoned in Bolivia

A retired FBI official told a House subcommittee that the imprisonment of a New York Chasidic Jew in Bolivia is “state-sponsored kidnapping.”

Along with the ex-official, Steve Moore, the U.S. House of Representatives human rights subcommittee on Wednesday heard testimony from the family of Jacob Ostreicher, who was arrested a year ago by Bolivian police after it was alleged that he did business with “people wanted in their countries because of links with drug trafficking and money laundering.” Ostreicher, a father of five from the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, belonged to a group of investors that sunk $25 million into growing rice in lush eastern Bolivia.

The hearing was chaired by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), who said in his opening statement that the U.S. government “must do everything we can to correct the ongoing, extreme injustice being perpetrated against Mr. Ostreicher and secure his freedom as quickly as possible.”

Committee members heard from Ostreicher’s wife, Miriam Ungar, and his daughter, Chaya Weinberger. Both pleaded for Ostreicher’s release by the Bolivian government.

“He, together with all those who love him and want him home are waiting,” Weinberger said during her testimony. “We are waiting to see the demonstration of liberty on which our country is based upon,”

Moore said that “In Jacob’s case there is a complete absence of any concrete, tangible evidence on even a microscopic scale which would indicate that he had in any way shape or form participated in a crime in Bolivia. Nor is there even evidence that a crime has even been committed.”

A number of U.S. lawmakers have joined Ostreicher’s family in saying that the U.S. State Department has not provided an adequate response to Ostreicher’s incarceration.

Last week, Smith made a formal request to the U.S. assistant secretary of state of Western Hemisphere affairs, Roberta Jacobson, to personally intervene in the Ostreicher case.

House committee to hold hearing on Chasidic Jew held in Bolivia

The House Foreign Affairs human rights subcommittee will hold a hearing about the plight of a Chasidic Jew from Brooklyn being held in a Bolivian jail.

New York businessman Jacob Ostreicher has been on a hunger strike for nearly two months until he is either put on trial to defend himself against money laundering charges or released on bail.

Ostreicher’s wife and daughter, and a retired FBI official, will speak before the panel on Wednesday, according to The Hill website.

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 a year ago 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.”

U.S. lawmakers and Ostreicher’s family believe that the U.S. State Department has not provided an adequate response to Ostreicher’s detention.

Bolivia boots Iranian defense minister over ‘94 bombing

Iran’s defense minister left Bolivia following complaints from Argentina over his alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Jewish community center.

Ahmad Vahidi reportedly left Bolivia late Tuesday night under a cloud of secrecy, Reuters reported, after arriving the previous day on an official visit to attend a military ceremony led by President Evo Morales.

Argentina has accused Vahidi of planning the July 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish center, which killed 85 and wounded hundreds. The Argentina Justice Department had called on Interpol to detain Vahidi, who has had an international arrest warrant issued against him since 2007.

Bolivia’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday offered a “heartfelt apology” to Argentina, admitted internal misunderstandings about the invitation to Vahidi, and assured the administration of Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner that it had ordered the “immediate withdrawal” of the Iranian minister in order to “not interfere with respect to proceedings regarding the legal status of that person.”

Aldo Donzis, the head of DAIA, Argentina’s Jewish political umbrella, described the Iranian’s visit to Bolivia as a “provocation.”

Vahidi arrived in Bolivia to attend a ceremony marking the 59th anniversary of the Colmilav Military Aviation School. Diplomats from Cuba and Venezuela also attended.

Asked by reporters whether there was a possibility of installing Iranian military bases in Bolivia and Venezuela, Vahidi denied that the two countries have applied to host the bases.

“We are willing to offer any kind of cooperation in this regard if we are asked,” he said.

Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman has accused Iran of masterminding the AMIA attack and requested Tuesday that Vahidi be detained in Bolivia, which borders Argentina.

In September 2009, the Iranian parliament unanimously approved Vahidi’s nomination to be the country’s defense minister. Vahidi declared that his appointment was “testimony to the anti-Zionist spirit of the Iranian Parliament and Iranian people.”

Bolivia recognizes Palestine

Bolivia became the third country in recent weeks to recognize a state of Palestine.

“Bolivia recognizes the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, like Brazil and Argentina,” the Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported Bolivian President Evo Morales as saying last Friday during a visit to Brazil.

Uruguay is expected to follow suit early next month.

Israel, the United States and Jewish groups have attempted to push back against a Palestinian Authority initiative to win recognition of Palestinian statehood in Latin America and Europe, the two major regions that until now have resisted recognizing the provisional statehood declared in 1988.

The Palestinian Authority is pressing for recognition partly as leverage against Israel’s refusal to freeze settlement building.

Palestinians walked away from direct talks in October because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial freeze on such building.

Passover In Bolivia

I found myself at a seder in Cochabamba, Bolivia on a cool spring evening during Passover 1999. At the time I was spending a semester abroad as part of my major in international studies at Macalester College.

On a daily basis in Bolivia, I experienced most situations from the perspective of a North American female living in a culture dramatically different from the one in which I was raised. The first night of Passover in Bolivia was unique because it was an uncanny juxtaposition of the foreign and the totally familiar, a combination that had the potential to be unsettling but proved to be truly rewarding.

I had learned about this seder — and the synagogue service that preceded it — from a Bolivian doctor who was a member of the small Jewish community in Cochabamba. Most Bolivians, including the incredible host family with whom I lived for six months and became very attached to, had very little practical knowledge of Judaism, since Bolivia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

The local synagogue, discreetly tucked into a corner of town not far from the main plaza, was a small white colonial-style building with a delicate stained-glass Star of David above the door. Arriving a few minutes early, I walked in and was faced with a wooden partition, which I assumed was to prevent the congregated masses from having to view the arrival of latecomers. Entering, I saw that the sanctuary was totally empty.

About 20 rows of red-upholstered pews extended in two columns. At the front of the sanctuary were the bimah and the ark. It was all quite familiar: the flame burning above the ark to remind the congregation of God’s eternal presence, and other traditional objects like a menorah and wine glasses.

I had been standing in the doorway for a minute, wondering if I had arrived on the wrong day, when two young men arrived and introduced themselves as Peace Corps volunteers. From the basket just inside the door, they helped themselves to kipot, and we stood there chatting, waiting awkwardly for directions of some kind.

Finally, after a good 15 minutes, people began to arrive. I realized that the more relaxed South American standards of time applied to religious services as well as to everyday events. As people filed in and began to mill around, I said goodbye to my new friends when I realized I would be sitting separate from them in the women’s section. I approached a group of women, hoping to make conversation.

"Buenas noches," I said, unsure as to what language I would hear in reply. "Chag sameach" they answered. Familiar as their greeting was, it gave me no clue as to their nationality. I began some small talk in Spanish, but it became clear that the language of choice was Hebrew, with English as a fallback. I soon learned that these women were all from Israel and were here to visit family. Just as I was wondering if the service would ever begin, 30 to 40 Israelis in their 20’s entered in groups of three or four.

Soon the service began, although it seemed that hardly anyone realized it. A few of the men were chanting a familiar melody, and the rest of the congregation was simply watching. In the women’s section, most were chatting quite loudly. Only a couple of times did we sing a prayer in unison. The service was over before I realized it, lasting less than half an hour.

The seder itself was held in a spacious room in a nearby community center. Tables set up in a U-shaped pattern lined the perimeter of the room, with three smaller tables in the center. I smiled to myself as I spotted all the traditional foods of the holiday — plates of matzah, the bright pink maror, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, charoset and wine. The three center tables seemed to be designated for families — several children were in the group — and the families appeared to be Bolivian, all chatting in Spanish, with some of the kids rehearsing their readings for the service to come.

The haggadahs for the evening were photocopied booklets, with the service in Hebrew and Spanish. A Bolivian man began to lead the seder, and his wife, the Hebrew school teacher, prompted the children when it was their turn to read.

Once the dinner was served, I felt as though I could have been at any other seder I’ve ever attended. There was the traditional matzah ball soup, the chicken, potatoes, gefilte fish and fruit salads. After dinner, the table looked like tables always seem to after a seder, with scattered bits of matzah that didn’t make it into anyone’s mouth, bright blotches of the almost fluorescent pink horseradish on various plates, and wine stains on the white tablecloth.

As at many seders, we began to sing after dinner, though this singing was like none that I have experienced. A woman, her hands swaying through the air, stood at the front of the room to direct her Sunday school students in song. However, it soon it became clear who was really leading the songs. The 60-strong Israeli delegation, some rather affected by the wine, sang out with spirit and enthusiasm, and soon no one else could be heard. Everyone joined in, and finally, as all seders do, this one ended when group consensus determined that the singing had gone on long enough.

I had approached this event with little idea of what to expect at a Bolivian seder, but with a firm notion of what a seder was "supposed to be." In the end, I was not disappointed. I had anticipated a more distinctly Bolivian flavor to the evening, but it reflected more of an international sentiment. In retrospect, though, this seems only appropriate, since Judaism, after all, is a religion that transcends national boundaries, creating an international community of Jews all over the globe.

And that is something that I know will offer me both comfort and familiarity, no matter where in the world I find myself at future seders.