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Businessman from New York stews 10 months in Bolivian prison, uncharged
SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (AP) ' Jacob Ostreicher, a New York businessman, has been confined for 10 months in one of Bolivia's most unruly prisons without being charged. He has shed more than 30 pounds, helpless to do anything as, he alleges, the multimillion-dollar rice farming venture he managed has been plundered.
At more than two dozen hearings, prosecutors have presented no evidence to back their allegations that the 53-year-old American may have been laundering drug money.
And this week, the presiding judge quit the case, likely meaning more weeks of delay.
"This is the scam of the century," Ostreicher said by telephone afterward. "I feel Iike I've been hijacked and kidnapped by people who are hiding behind the law."
The prosecutor would not discuss Ostreicher's complaints with The Associated Press. Nor would senior Bolivian officials, though U.S. diplomats have appealed to them to try to extract Ostreicher from the legal labyrinth.
The troubles began when Ostreicher and a group of Swiss partners decided to invest $25 million to grow rice in Bolivia's eastern lowlands four years ago.
Andre Zolty, one of the Swiss investors, said the idea came from a Colombian lawyer, Claudia Liliana Rodriguez, who had done some work for him in Geneva while a student.
"I made a big mistake to trust that woman," Zolty said.
Some of the land that Rodriguez bought for the venture turned out to belong to the brother of a drug trafficker who had escaped from a Brazilian prison and who, the investors say, became romantically and financially entwined with her.
When the investors suspected they were being defrauded, they dispatched Ostreicher to investigate. He wound up firing and suing Rodriguez.
The drug trafficker, Maximiliano Dorado, was deported in early 2011 to Brazil, where he is back in prison. Rodriguez was subsequently jailed in Bolivia, accused of money laundering.
The 32-year-old woman would not agree to an interview, though her lawyer, Oswaldo Flores, said her relationship with Dorado was strictly commercial and she did not know he was a drug trafficker when she bought the property.
Dorado's connection to the rice venture, led authorities to Ostreicher.
During the June 4 hearing at which he was ordered jailed, prosecutor Jeanette Velarde said the American had made investments with "capital of dubious origin."
But as the months have stretched out, officials have never produced enough evidence to warrant formal charges ' and have ignored information to the contrary, the investors say.
According to a court transcript, Velarde said Zolty was under "investigation in Switzerland and other countries for the alleged laundering of money from illicit drug sales."
Zolty obtained a letter from Swiss federal police last year saying he faced no criminal investigations. The Associated Press confirmed its authenticity and also checked with New York police on Ostreicher, who said they found no record of wrongdoing.
Velarde told the AP last month that the case remained in a "preparatory phase" because she was waiting for bank records from Switzerland, Argentina and the United States detailing the investors' holdings.
Ostreicher and Zolty say they have provided all requested banking records, in Ostreicher's case more than 1,000 documents.
The New Yorker said that since his imprisonment, nearly 40 million pounds (18,000 metric tons) of his venture's rice was seized in the name of Dircabi, the government agency that manages assets frozen in criminal investigations.
"And nobody knows where it is and nobody knows who got the money and for how much money it was sold," Ostreicher said.
Arrest warrants were issued in January for three men accused of falsifying documents in the case. They include a former Dircabi employee who allegedly forged a letter allowing the rice to be taken. The agency's regional director has been suspended and is under investigation.
Ostreicher says his only guilt is in being naive about doing business in the poor, landlocked South American nation.
He has been through five lawyers and two judges, had more than 30,000 acres (15,000 hectares) of land frozen and has been unable to prevent rice worth more than $4 million being confiscated and sold. Ostreicher says his attorneys fees have reached $500,000.
"The injustice that was done to him here is consuming him," said his wife, Miriam Ungar, 47. "He cannot sit still. He paces back and forth in a five-foot space in his cell all day. He doesn't sleep nights."
He chain smokes and says he often stares blankly at a single page for several hours when he tries to read. At least he has a cell to himself in a prison teeming with 3,500 inmates. He does his best to avoid the hoodlums who run things inside Palmasola, where he says he is the only U.S. citizen.
As an Orthodox Jew, Ostreicher keeps a kosher diet, which is not an option in the prison cafeteria. So he often goes days without meat. He says he plans to begin a hunger strike April 14, when Passover ends.
"He is slowly losing his mind," his wife said.
A few other countries in the region rank lower than Bolivia on Transparency International's index of perceived corruption, but human rights groups say bribes and case-fixing are common in Bolivia's legal system. Last year, five Bolivian prosecutors were dismissed for irregularities including alleged corruption, the Interior Ministry says. Currently, 15 prosecutors are under investigation.
The judiciary also suffers from disorganization and a shortage of judges.
In September, a judge ordered Ostreicher freed, only to retract his order a week later, saying he had erred. That judge was later promoted and a new judge was named to the case.
Then, on Monday, the new judge removed himself from the case, saying Rodriguez accused him in court papers of favoring Ostreicher at her expense. Another problem adds to delays: the court's judges are handling double their normal caseload because so many judicial posts are unfilled.
The U.S. government has tried to help Ostreicher but doesn't have much influence, being without an ambassador since its last one was expelled in 2008 for allegedly inciting opponents of leftist President Evo Morales.
The U.S. Embassy said there has been "frequent contact with Bolivian officials at the highest possible level regarding the case (and seeking) to ensure that Mr. Ostreicher is afforded due process." Its statement said U.S. officials had visited Ostreicher and were concerned for his health.
Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca acknowledged receiving diplomatic notes from the U.S. State Department but would not say whether the Bolivian government was acting on them.
When Interior Minister Carlos Romero was asked about the case, he said only that he would look into it.
While investment in big Bolivian energy and mining projects has risen recently, investment in agriculture has suffered because of disputes over land ownership and government confiscations of several major tracts.
"Domestic and international investors alike are afraid," said Ronald Nostas, vice president of the Bolivian Federation of Private Businessmen.
Another American who ran into trouble over land is longtime Bolivia resident Ronald Larsen, who was stripped in 2010 of his 58-square-mile (15,000-hectare) cattle ranch after authorities accused him of exploiting his workers. Larsen called the charges trumped up. He now lives mostly in Brazil, where his son Dustin says he is fixing up a seaside hotel.
Dustin Larsen expresses sympathy for Ostreicher, but says the New Yorker clearly was not prepared for doing business in Bolivia.
"Americans take everyone at face value. Unfortunately, down here you can't do that," he said. "A lot of deals have gone bad down here."
Associated Press writer Paola Flores reported from Santa Cruz and Frank Bajak from Lima, Peru. AP writers Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, and Ian James, in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.
Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/fbajak