written by: Malia Rulon Herman – Washington Bureau, Asbury Park Press
WASHINGTON — Actor Sean Penn told a congressional committee on Monday that the international community must put pressure on Bolivia to release American businessman Jacob Ostreicher, who has been detained since 2011.
“As an actor, I have been in good movies and I’ve been in bad movies,” Penn told members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.
Penn has visited Ostreicher in Bolivia twice and personally reached out to Bolivian President Evo Morales, whom he knew previously.
He told lawmakers on Monday that the Dakar Rally, a well-known off-road motorcycle, truck and car race, is to traverse Bolivia next year and sponsors of the race should require that Ostreicher and others being wrongfully detained in Bolivia be released before it is allowed to proceed.
“It is still possible for the Dakar Rally to exclude Bolivia,” Penn told lawmakers. “International pressure is needed.”
Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, who chaired the hearing, said he would immediately write to the sponsors of the Dakar Rally to ask for cooperation.
“We are very grateful for that recommendation,” he said. “No one should be behind bars ever anywhere who is innocent.”
Ostreicher, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, N.Y., was in Bolivia on behalf of a group of Swiss investors who had sought to grow rice in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. A plot of land purchased by the agricultural venture was found to have been formerly owned by a drug trafficker.
Ostreicher was arrested in June 2011 and held for a year in one of Bolivia’s most unruly prisons without being charged. He was released last December but remains on house arrest and has not been allowed to leave the country. While detained, he developed symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Ostreicher has been accused of laundering drug money, but no evidence has been presented. In the meantime, $27 million in assets from his rice operation were confiscated by the Bolivian government.
“Perhaps that is the real reason why Mr. Ostreicher is still not home with his family,” Smith said at the start of the hearing, his third on the Ostreicher case.
Ostreicher’s daughter, Chaya Weinberger of Lakewood, N.J., has testified at previous hearings about her father’s failing health, imploring Congress to help.
His wife, Miriam Ungar, told reporters on Monday that while she hopes the hearing and the renewed attention will help, it’s the third such hearing she has attended and her husband remains in Bolivia.
“We do not understand what Bolivia wants,” she said.
Ostreicher has five children and 11 grandchildren, many of whom can’t sleep at night because of the ordeal, Ungar said.
Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California, the committee’s ranking member, told family members at the hearing that she and others would continue to fight for his release.
“Jacob is not forgotten in the U.S. Congress and we continue to seek an immediate release,” she said.