Sponsors of the world-famous Dakar Rally should request the release of American businessman Jacob Ostreicher--who has been unlawfully detained in Bolivia for two years--or insist that the 2014 Rally exclude Bolivia from its planned route, said U.S. Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), who together with other members of Congress is seeking Ostreicher's release.
"Both for the sake of justice and in the interest of ensuring the security of the Dakar Rally participants and spectators, we are respectfully asking the Rally organizers to request that Bolivian officials immediately release Jacob Ostreicher," Smith said. "Given the high profile of Mr. Ostreicher's case in Bolivia, and the general consensus among those who have examined the charges against him that he is innocent, his release would be an acknowledgment that judicial reform is needed in Bolivia and an assurance to those involved in the Rally that the event will not be marred by similar human rights violations."
Actor and humanitarian activist Sean Penn called on Members of Congress to join him in this request of the Dakar Rally sponsors in the course of his testimony on behalf of Ostreicher at a May 20th hearing of the human rights panel chaired by Smith. Smith and four other Members of Congress sent letters to the Rally sponsors: the oil company Total, Red Bull, Honda Motor Co., Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Michelin (tires), Edox Swiss watches, Karcher, Aggreko, Mutual de Seguridad, and Maindru Photo. The event is organized by the Amaury Sport Organisation.
The Dakar Rally originated in 1978 as a car and motorbike race from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal. The race later incorporated trucks and quads. In 2009, due to terrorism threats in northern Africa, it was moved to Latin America. The Dakar Rally garners not only prestige for the host countries, but also hundreds of millions of dollars in economic benefits and tourism promotion to the billion viewers who watch the event as it is broadcast around the world. The Dakar Rally has announced that the route will include Bolivia, for motorbikes only, for the first time in January 2014.
"The Rally could easily re-route the motorbikes to go directly from Argentina to Chile, on the same track as the other race participants, if Bolivia does not immediately respond to requests that it adhere to its own laws and free Mr. Ostreicher," Smith explained. "If Mr. Ostreicher is not freed, and the Rally organizer does not alter the route to exclude Bolivia, then the sponsors should withdraw their support of this event.
"After all, if an international businessman like Mr. Ostreicher can be stripped of his business and his entire investment in Bolivia, and be thrown in prison without charges, trial or any evidence shown against him, how could other international companies expect to receive different treatment?"
Other members signing the letter to the organizer and sponsors are: Rep. Eliot Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; Rep. Karen Bass, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations; Rep. Nydia Velázquez, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Small Business; and, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.
Both Penn and Smith have visited Ostreicher in Bolivia. Penn attended a December bail hearing. Bail was denied for over 18 months, but finally granted in December. Smith visited him in June 2012 in the notorious Palmasola, an inmate-run prison, and met with Bolivian officials to release Ostreicher. Also in December, Smith led a bipartisan congressional delegation to continue to press for his freedom.
During his confinement, Mr. Ostreicher 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 2012 meeting. Ostreicher has additionally endured the confiscation of all the assets of the rice farming business in which he was an investor, estimated to be worth about $27 million.
Smith has held three congressional hearings on the case, the latest on May 20, 2013, "Advocating for American Jacob Ostreicher's Freedom after Two Years in Bolivian Detention." Mr. Ostreicher's daughter, Chaya Weinberger, of Lakewood, N.J. in Smith's district, attended or testified at each.
In August of 2012, Smith held his second hearing on Ostreicher's case entitled "Seeking Freedom for American Trapped in Bolivian Prison." Chairman Smith 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.