By Malia Rulon Herman
A Lakewood, N.J., woman tearfully begged lawmakers at a congressional hearing Wednesday to help free her father Jacob Ostreicher, who is imprisoned in Bolivia.
Chaya Weinberger said the situation of her father, an Orthodox Jew who has been on a hunger strike since Passover ended in April, is "life threatening" and urgent intervention is needed.
"He is on the verge of collapse, both mentally and physically," Weinberger said. "We beg of you, Congress and the U.S. State Department, help us now. It may soon be too late."
Ostreicher, a New York businessman, has been held for a year in one of Bolivia's most unruly prisons without being charged. He's been accused of laundering drug money, but no evidence has been presented and the majority of hearings on his case have been canceled by the court.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., held the hearing on Wednesday -- exactly one year since the day Ostreicher was arrested -- to call attention to the case and pressure the State Department to intervene.
He had harsh words for the State Department. The department is "monitoring" the situation but declined an invitation to appear at the hearing.
"I am finding this baffling lack of responsiveness -- one might even call it indifference -- on the part of embassy and consular personnel to be a disturbing pattern," said Smith, who is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights.
Weinberger agreed. "Monitoring is not enough," she said. "My father is an innocent man."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has also spoken out in the case. He sent a letter last month to Bolivian President Evo Morales expressing his "profound concern" about the treatment of Ostreicher and calling for a speedy trial.
"I insist that you refrain from any further delay in holding an open and fair trial, and that Mr. Ostreicher be accorded immediately the opportunity to present his defense and refute the charges brought against him," said Menendez, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Ostreicher was in Bolivia on behalf of a group of Swiss investors who had sought to grow rice in Bolivia's eastern lowlands. A plot of land purchased by the agricultural venture was found to have been formerly owned by a drug trafficker.
While Ostreicher has been imprisoned, however, the 50 million pounds of rice harvested by his company -- worth $18 million -- has disappeared, his wife told the committee.
"I am puzzled by the fact that no one in Bolivia is talking about the theft of 50 million pounds of rice worth more than $18 million and the three people charged with stealing it cannot be found, yet Jacob, the innocent owner of the rice, languishes in prison," Miriam Ungar said
Former FBI agent Steve Moore, known for helping to clear American Amanda Knox of murder charges in Italy, is working on the Ostreicher case free of charge. He has called on the Obama administration to intervene in the case.
"This is a state-sponsored kidnapping," Moore told the committee. "I have looked at this case from every possible direction. There is no evidence that a crime occurred."
Weinberger said her five children miss their grandfather, and it's been hard keeping news of his imprisonment from them. She said her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, also is anxious for her son's return.
"When innocent Americans are jailed abroad, will their country fight for them or abandon them in their time of need?" Weinberger asked lawmakers. "We are hoping that our country won't let us down."