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Lawmaker visits American hunger striker imprisoned in Bolivia

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 8:43 PM EDT, Wed June 13, 2012
American prsioner Jacob Ostreicher is being held in the notorious Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
American prsioner Jacob Ostreicher is being held in the notorious Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
  • Rep. Chris Smith traveled to Bolivia to meet with Jacob Ostreicher
  • Ostreicher has been in prison for more than one year without formal charges
  • Prosecutors suspect him of money laundering
  • Ostreicher says he has proved his innocence

(CNN) -- As his case meanders through the Bolivian justice system, an American businessman imprisoned there for a year without formal charges is finding support from a leading human rights advocate in the U.S. Congress.

Jacob Ostreicher, a 53-year-old flooring contractor from Brooklyn, New York, has been held at the notorious Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, since June 2011 on suspicions of money laundering.

Ostreicher and his family have claimed from the beginning that he is innocent, and presented a judge what they say is evidence that all of the money invested in a rice growing operation came from legal sources. But repeated delays have kept him imprisoned.

The case is now getting more attention in Washington, as U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, has become a vocal advocate for him.

Smith traveled to Bolivia this week to meet with Ostreicher in prison and to accompany him to a hearing Monday.

At that hearing, the judge transferred the case to a higher court, a move likely to create further delays.

"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 is nearly two months into a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment.

Smith reported that Ostreicher appeared "frail and anguished."

The lawmaker's trip follows a hearing last week before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, which Smith chairs.

Ostreicher's wife and daughter testified before the panel and retold what they knew about the case.

In short, Ostreicher traveled to Bolivia to check on a woman who had been hired to run a rice operation that he and others had invested in. That woman allegedly had ties with a drug trafficker, and the land being used for the rice was tied to the trafficker's brother. Bolivian prosecutors have accused Ostreicher of money laundering, though formal charges are yet to be filed. Ostreicher says he was unjustly ensnared in the investigation.

Among those who testified last week was Steve Moore, a former FBI agent who is known for his work on the Amanda Knox case in Italy. He has conducted an independent review of Osteicher's case.

"I have seen all the Bolivian's self-described 'evidence' against him, and I have seen the evidence which supports his innocence," Moore said in his written testimony on June 6. "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."

He criticized the U.S. State Department for placing too much trust in the Bolivian justice system and not advocating more strongly for the jailed American.

"Bolivia's system is neither just nor is it legitimate," he said. "What has happened to Jacob Ostreicher is little more than a state-sponsored kidnapping for ransom."

Smith this month wrote a letter to Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, asking her to publicly advocate on Ostreicher's behalf during the General Assembly of the Organization of American States which took place in Bolivia last week.

Jacobson did not mention the case in front of the OAS, Smith said.

Prosecutors told CNN in September that they are suspicious of Ostreicher because of the lengths he went to to try to recoup the investors' losses and his continued negotiations with the landowner.

Meanwhile, Ostreicher's case is getting more local and international media attention. Prison authorities have initiated a separate investigation into media interviews Ostreicher has done. One report, which included file footage of prostitution and drug use inside the Palmasola prison has stirred unrest, and prison authorities have recommended a 15-day punishment for his participation in the media stories. His wife says that the punishment, if handed out, could mean that her husband would be transferred to the even tougher and more dangerous Chonchocoro prison.

Smith promised to continue to push the case.

"What was a relatively obscure case is now a growing international embarrassment for the (Evo) Morales government that runs Bolivia," he said.

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