Since then, a second judge has recused himself from the case, and a third was assigned. So far, the case has been handed off to three different prosecutors and four defense attorneys. Ostreicher’s family is convinced that this is all a cynical charade, and that Yanky is effectively being held for ransom by corrupt Bolivian officials.
Former FBI agent Steve Moore, who helped to secure the release of Amanda Knox who was accused of murder in Italy on flimsy evidence, believes that Ostreicher is a victim of Bolivia’s notoriously corrupt criminal justice system. “There’s no evidence to convict him of anything,” Moore says. “But here’s a guy they see coming in from New York, who’s got probably a lot of liquid cash or represents a lot of liquid cash, and they saw an opportunity.”
US diplomats claim that they have filed protests about Ostreicher being held without due process. Local officials respond that under Bolivian law, Ostreicher can be held for up to 18 months in prison without formal criminal charges being lodged against him.
NO HELP FROM US OFFICIALS
In response to appeals from the family for help to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, wrote a letter about Ostreicher’s plight to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last October 5, appealing to her to intervene with Bolivian diplomats on Ostreicher’s behalf. In the letter Kerry noted that as an American in a Bolivian jail, Ostreicher was in a “precarious situation” and that “only with intervention can a fair result be attained.” Clinton has not responded.
Ostreicher’s wife Miriam says that her appeals for help to New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand have been ignored. That is why she has now gone to the media and is staging public protests to attract attention to her husband’s plight.
On May 3, she organized a public protest on his behalf on in front of Bolivia’s mission to the United Nations in New York City.
She has also launched a petition drive with a goal of 25,000 signatures to be presented to President Obama on June 2, just prior to the first anniversary of Yanky’s arrest, to demand that the White House take up his case with the Bolivian government.
Meanwhile, inside his prison, Ostreicher started a hunger strike at the end of Pesach, and has refused to consume anything other than water.
THE INMATES ARE IN CHARGE OF THE INSTITUTION
Yanky Ostreicher’s plight was recently the subject of a video expose broadcast on the ABC network news program Nightline. It showed how his wife has been traveling regularly to the prison in Bolivia from Boro Park to visit him and provide him with kosher food for year-round and for Pesach. The report also documented the overcrowded and unsafe conditions in the prison, in which some of the region’s most dangerous murderers and drug dealers are free to prowl the grounds.
There are no guards inside the walls of Palmasola. The prisoners are left to govern themselves. As a result, murders are common and everything is available for sale.
During the day time, a visiting ABC reporter said the place felt “like a small Bolivian village, with shops and even restaurants, and an unmistakable air of menace and fear lurking just beneath the surface.”
Ostreicher told the reporter, “I never, never go out at night. It is absolutely frightening.”
Yanky’s family is being forced to pay for everything, including the right for Yanky to sleep inside to be out of the rain. He can only eat the food brought to him periodically by his wife and has lost a lot of weight since his arrest.
Yanky showed the reporter a letter he received from his granddaughter in New York, in which she wrote, “We keep asking Bubby and mommy when you will come home. And they told me they don’t know when. Zayde, who knows the answer? I want you to come home today.”
INVESTING HIS LIFE SAVINGS
Before getting involved in Bolivia, Yanky had worked for years in the Ostreicher family business, a floor covering contracting firm based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Then, in mid-2008, as the floor covering business was slowing down, Yanky learned through a family friend of an opportunity to invest $200,000, his entire life savings, into a $25 million Swiss syndicate led by financier Andre Zolty to grow rice in Bolivia. The idea was to buy 30,000 acres of land, hire workers to raise and harvest the crop, and then sell the rice at a profit.
The business was initially operated by a local woman named Claudia Lilana Rodriguez who had worked for Zolty and gained his trust several years earlier when she was a business student in Switzerland. She had claimed to come from a wealthy family, and seemed to be trustworthy, so the syndicate put her in charge of the business.
For the first year or so, things seemed to be going well. More than 200 Bolivian workers were hired, and the venture’s first harvest yielded nearly 40 million pounds of rice. But after that, Ostreicher became concerned because the business was not as profitable as he had expected it to be.
He began making frequent visits to Bolivia to check on the operation in person, but each time he would visit, Rodriguez would find some pretext to avoid meeting with him. Whenever the investors pressed her from afar to provide documentation on the operation’s business dealings, she threatened to quit, and soon Ostreicher discovered why.
Rodriguez was stealing millions from the business. She was buying land with company money and put it in her own name. She would bill the operation for reimbursement for purchases of machinery and supplies she claimed to have made, while actually having bought them on the company’s credit. Worst of all she was working with Max Dorado, a notorious escaped Brazilian drug dealer who was helping Rodriguez by growing some of the company’s rice on his own land.
When he learned what was going on, Ostreicher convinced Zolty to fire Rodriguez and let him take over the running of the business. Dorado fled, and so did Rodriguez, leaving Ostreicher, to repair the damage. In December, 2010, Dorado was captured by Bolivian police and deported to Brazil.
The company filed criminal and civil complaints against Rodriguez. In March, 2011, it took out a full page ad in Santa Cruz’s biggest local newspaper to explain to the public what had happened and to reassure them that the operation was now being operated honestly under Ostreicher’s direction.
PROSECUTORS WERE COURTEOUS, AT FIRST
It was at that point that Bolivian prosecutors began questioning Ostreicher. At first, they were quite courteous and friendly, even if they did keep asking him to buy them lunch. Apparently, they were sizing him up as a potential hostage to be held for ransom.
Ostreicher continued to commute frequently between New York and Bolivia. He says that when he asked diplomats at the US Embassy in Bolivia whether he should be concerned about the interrogations by Bolivian police, they told him not to worry and to answer their questions honestly. They did not warn him about the corruption in that country or tell him to go home for his own safety.
In fact, US-Bolivian relations have been very poor since 2008. That was when the leftist government of Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled the US ambassador, after accusing him of inciting the opposition. The government then began confiscating big farms and ranches from major landholders, including an American rancher named Ronald Larsen, on trumped up charges that he was exploiting his workers. Since that time, US diplomats have had very little ability to protect US citizens in Bolivia like Ostreicher from bogus arrests and prosecutions.
The turning point in Ostreicher’s case came in May of 2011, Rodriguez returned to Santa Cruz and was arrested by Bolivian police on money-laundering charges. She apparently told prosecutors that Ostreicher was behind the scheme, because less than a week later, police raided Ostreicher’s office and hauled away computers, cell phones and hundreds of business documents.
YANKY NEVER MADE IT HOME FOR LAST SHAVUOS
A few days before Shavuos last year, when Ostreicher was preparing to fly home to New York, he was called in by prosecutors for another round of questioning. He volunteered to go to the prosecutor’s office ahead of schedule to give his deposition so that he could get home in time for Yom Tov. Instead, when he arrived on June 3 to answer questions, he was arrested and thrown into a filthy jail cell.
The next day, at his arraignment, the judge accused Ostreicher of being “the representative of Andre Zolty” and having “commercial relations with Maximiliano Dorado, both people wanted in their countries because of links with drug trafficking and money laundering…”
Ostreicher and his lawyers presented the court with extensive documentation proving that all of the investment money used to start the rice growing operation came from legal sources, but to no avail. They submitted a statement from Interpol, the international police organization, confirming that Zolty has no criminal record whatsoever. The judge was not impressed.
When queried about the case, Bolivian officials insist that they have a legitimate criminal case against Ostreicher and that he will get his day in court, but they refuse to say when.
COMPANY ASSETS BEING LOOTED
Meanwhile, they are robbing the operation of its assets. The Bolivian government seized 40 million pounds of rice which were harvested from Ostreicher’s fields and sold it on the open market.
The Bolivian government official in charge of seized property, Moises Aguilera, told The Associated Press in December that the rice had to be sold because otherwise it would have spoiled. But the senior partner in the investment partnership, Mr. Zolty, says that corrupt government officials are trying to profit from the confiscated rice. He also accuses all Bolivian lawyers of being corrupt.
Meanwhile, Yanky still lives in fear of his life every day in that Bolivian prison, as his wife struggles to provide him with food, encouragement and hope that he will ultimately regain his freedom.
The most painful part emotionally for both of them is at the end of her visits to the prison, when they are so reluctant to part. She told the ABC reporter that leaving him to return home is “torture. I feel like I’m abandoning him. The pain of watching him watch me leave, he stands behind the gate, and I just stare at him and I walk backwards, because I don’t want him to see my back when I walk out the door. He then sees my anguish, and runs inside to make it easier for me to leave.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.