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Sean Penn's call for American's release, road race reroute irks Bolivian minister

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Wed May 22, 2013
Sean Penn is shown with U.S. businessman Jacob Ostreicher at a news conference in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in December 2012.
Sean Penn is shown with U.S. businessman Jacob Ostreicher at a news conference in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in December 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sean Penn has advocated for the release of a U.S. man from Bolivia
  • Penn called on U.S. lawmakers to pressure the Bolivian government
  • A Bolivian minister lashed out at Penn for his comments
  • The actor has a historically close relationship with Bolivia

(CNN) -- Actor Sean Penn, a friend of Bolivian President Evo Morales, nonetheless angered the South American country's government after his call for the release of a U.S. businessman who has been imprisoned since 2011.

Penn, known for his chumminess with Latin America's leftist leaders, is also an advocate for Brooklyn flooring contractor Jacob Ostreicher, whose supporters say has spent two years detained in Bolivia without evidence.

At a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee meeting Monday, Penn asked U.S. lawmakers to pressure the sponsors of the off-road Dakar Rally to cancel its planned 2014 route through Bolivia if Ostreicher is not freed.

"The Dakar Rally, one of the world's most prominent displays of freedom and tenacity of the human spirit, will be parading through Bolivia even as thousands of prisoners like Mr. Ostreicher sit in feces-filled cells, forgotten behind locked walls," Penn said.

On Tuesday, Bolivia's minister of culture shot back.

"The remarks by Mr. Penn are his worst acting in all of his career," Pablo Groux said, according to the state-run ABI news agency. "The remark is offensive to the Bolivian people, totally out of context and lacking any understanding."

The minister said the actor's comments harkened back to a time when the United States exerted heavy influence in Latin America.

"Those days are long gone," Groux said.

The rebuke from the Bolivian official is notable coming from a government that Penn has been friendly with.

During his testimony before the subcommittee, Penn said that he does not blame Morales for Ostreicher's situation, but endemic corruption in the judiciary.

Penn said that he met with Morales last year, with evidence supporting Ostreicher's innocence, and that "these findings were received by the president with tremendous personal and human grief."

Ostreicher is under house arrest after spending 18 months in a notorious prison while his case crawled in the overburdened Bolivian judicial system. He was arrested in June 2011 on suspicion of money laundering tied to a rice-growing operation, and he languished in prison without formal charges.

He maintained that corrupt officials had trumped up the case, and last year, six government officials were arrested for allegedly extorting and stealing from Ostreicher. But the case against him has not been dropped.

READ MORE: American on hunger strike after 11 months in Bolivian prison

READ MORE: Bolivia releases imprisoned American after 18 months

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