The quest for justice and freedom for Jacob Ostreicher, an American businessman imprisoned without formal charges for 20 months in Bolivia, continued at a hearing today where American actor and activist Sean Penn came before the human rights subcommittee chaired by Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04), a leading human rights advocate in Congress.
"On June 4th, it will be two years since he was imprisoned. Bolivian officials are employing delay tactics and giving excuses for his continued detention that we have heard before. No evidence whatsoever has been presented to indicate that Mr. Ostreicher is guilty of any crime. And there is no sign of the $27 million in assets from his rice operation that were confiscated. Perhaps this last fact is the real reason why Mr. Ostreicher still is not home with his family in the United States," said Smith, chairman of a U.S. congressional subcommittee that oversees international human rights. "It is very much a privilege to have Mr. Penn with us today, not only because of the fame that he has rightly garnered through his Academy Award-winning acting, and not only because of the highly commendable assistance he is bringing to the suffering people in Haiti through the relief organization that he founded, but also because of the extraordinary assistance that he has provided to Mr. Ostreicher, who he had never met and to whom he owed no obligation prior to being asked to assist with the case last fall. That assistance now includes joining us today to highlight Mr. Ostreicher's continued plight and to advocate for his freedom," Smith said. Click here to read the Chairman Smith's opening remarks.
Both Penn and Smith have visited Ostreicher. Penn attended a December bail hearing. Bail was denied for over 18 months, but finally granted in December. Smith visited him in June in the notorious Palmasano, prisoner-run prison, and met with Bolivian officials to release Ostreicher. In December, Smith led a bipartisan congressional delegation to continue to press for his freedom. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, who accompanied Smith in December, also attended today's hearing.
"As an actor, I have been in good movies and bad ones," Penn told the panel. "I have never seen a worse movie, nor more arch-villainy on such a caricature-ish or humanly diabolical level as I witnessed in that court room. Despite the clear and unequivocal arguments of innocence and more importantly, evidence of innocence, brought by Mr. Ostreicher's Bolivian defense team, the judge, under the clear intimidation of a panel of snickering, arrogant and hateful prosecutors would have none of logic nor law." Click here to read Mr. Penn's statement.
Smith has held two congressional hearings on the case, and also met with Ostreicher in June. Ostreicher is now especially frail, due in part to his hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. During his confinement, he has also begun treatment for Parkinson's disease. When meeting with him in December, Smith observed that Ostreicher's health has deteriorated significantly since their June meeting, and in particular saw a noticeable trembling of Ostreicher's hands which Smith had not observed during his previous visit.
During that June visit, Smith met with the Bolivian Minister of Government, Carlos Romero, to detail Ostreicher's story of injustice, including repeated court delays and complete lack of evidence against him. Romero told Smith he would investigate Jacob's treatment. In the past week, eight people involved in the case have been arrested on charges of corruption, including the legal adviser to the Ministry of Government, Fernando Rivera. Smith personally observed Rivera interfering in the June court proceedings. Bolivian media reported that Romero stated he first became interested in the case as a result of his meeting with Smith.
During his ordeal, Ostreicher has additionally endured the confiscation of all the assets of the rice farming business in which he was an investor, including millions of pounds of rice.
Smith originally became involved in the case in June 2012, when the human rights subcommittee he chairs held the first congressional hearing on Ostreicher's plight. Click here to read Chairman Smith's opening remarks from the June 2012 hearing.
Prior to his first visit to Ostreicher in the Palmasola Prison in Bolivia, Smith formally requested that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson personally intervene on Ostreicher's behalf. After visiting with Ostreicher at the prison, Smith met with high-ranking Bolivian officials, including Minister of Government Romero, Minister of Justice Cecilia Luisa Ayllon and Vice Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Alurralde, to discuss the case.
Minister Romero committed to Smith to personally look into the injustices and irregularities of Ostreicher's case. The efforts came to fruition in late November, and so far eight individuals involved in Ostreicher's persecution, including government legal staff, have been arrested.
In August of 2012, Smith held a second hearing on Ostreicher's case entitled "Seeking Freedom for American Trapped in Bolivian Prison." Chairman Smith also introduced "Jacob's Law" (H.R. 1778), based on Smith's prior legislation, the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Authorization Act of 2011 (now P.L. 112-82, signed into law in January 2012). Jacob's Law would prohibit the travel of foreign officials and their families' to the United States if those officials are known to be complicit in the violation of fundamental human and due process rights of Americans imprisoned in their home country.