Solidarity rally for Orthodox Jew held in Bolivian jail

By Jennifer Lipman, May 11, 2012

Hundreds of members of New York's strictly Orthodox community gathered last week to highlight the inaction over the plight of an Orthodox Jewish businessman incarcerated in a Bolivian jail without charge.

Crowds including Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind and popular Orthodox musician Lipa Schmeltzer demonstrated outside the Bolivian mission to the United Nations carrying placards with the phrases "We are all Jacob Ostreicher" and "Demand freefdom for a fellow American" in a bid to push the US authorities to press for his release.

Jacob Ostreicher was sent to Palmasola prison in Bolivia nearly a year ago, but is no closer to making his case in court. The 52-year-old grandfather has been accused by the authorities over the fact that his rice farming business was allegedly used as a front for money laundering for the drugs trade. He is currently on a hunger strike in a bid to highlight his case and pressure the authorities.

Mr Ostreicher, who has described his situation as "the scam of the century", was one of several investors to put money in the farming project in the South American country four years ago.

The venture was brought to the investors by a woman Colombian called Claudia Liliana Rodriguez. It later emerged that some of the land Ms Rodriguez had arranged for them to use was owned by the brother of a convicted drug trafficker, Maximiliano Dorado, who some have claimed she was also romantically linked.

On discovering this, Mr Ostreicher was asked to investigate the possibility of fraud, and both Ms Rodriguez and Mr Dorado were arrested.

But the rice company's connections to Dorado led the Bolivian authorities to Mr Ostreicher. He was jailed last June on the basis that he too had used "capital of dubious origin" and that the investors were the subject of an investigation in Switzerland.

The case has barely progressed since. A judge who ordered him to be released in September changed his mind and was later replaced, while demands for his rights by the US government have achieved little.

His assets have been frozen and nearly $4 million worth of rice has been confiscated. The case has so far cost his family more than $500,000.

His wife, Miriam Ungar, said: "There is no reason for this. He is an innocent man."

Mr Hikind said that the case was an American issue, not simply a Jewish one. "We are calling on our leaders to get involved and do something. Is American citizenship so cheap and so meaningless that an American citizen can spend almost a year in prison without even being charged of a crime?

Ostreicher's wife, Miriam Ungar, expressed her thanks to everyone who took the time to show their solidarity for her husband.

Last updated: 12:09pm, May 11 2012