Jacob Ostreicher, the haredi Orthodox father of five who had been held against his will in Bolivia for more than two years, is back in the United States at an undisclosed location, his family announced Tuesday.
“I am not sure of the details,” revealed his daughter, Chaya Weinberger of Lakewood, N.J. “I still have not heard from him.”
A State Department spokesperson confirmed that Ostreicher “arrived in the United States Monday morning,” but could not answer specific questions regarding his travel arrangements. Since the businessman’s disappearance, his brother has been the only family member who had spoken with him.
Ostreicher had a flooring business in New York and invested money with a group of people involved in a rice-growing venture in Bolivia. He was managing that business in June 2011 when he was arrested on suspicion of money laundering. He was accused of doing business with people involved in drug trafficking and money laundering, but no proof was provided in court.
Throughout his detention, he was never officially charged with a crime, leading to calls from Capitol Hill for his release.
Weinberger learned of her father’s return to America when she received a call from the office of Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who held hearings on the matter.
According to the daughter, Ostreicher had recently been kidnapped while under house arrest. Several days after the family learned that he was missing, his brother, Aron Ostreicher, received a call from people demanding a ransom. The daughter believed that a ransom was negotiated and that her father was then “taken to international Pacific waters.”
“It is very sketchy,” said Weinberger. “Until I hear from him, I don’t believe any of the details. I believe my uncle, that’s all.”
As to her father’s location now, she assumes “that he is in a health clinic. He is in an undisclosed location,” she said. “I am waiting to hear from him.”
Ostreicher, who has 11 grandchildren, spent about a year and a half in the Palmasola prison before being sentenced to house arrest. Since his arrest, 27 prosecutors, judges and officials involved in his case have had charges leveled against them. Thirteen were sent to that same prison; nine others are under house arrest. Many of the charges against the Bolivians concern the engineering of Ostreicher’s arrest in hopes of extracting money.
Ostreicher experienced health problems during his time in Bolivia and suffers from what appears to be Parkinson’s disease. His wife, Miriam Ungar, told Washington Jewish Week earlier that her husband was afraid to take his medicine, fearing it was not the correct prescription or that it had expired. She also said she stopped visiting him more than half a year ago due to fears that she, too, would be held against her will. Weinberger visited her father at least five times over the past two years, but not recently.
While they were in phone contact during his house arrest, Ungar said that her husband sometimes was too depressed and wouldn’t speak on the phone.
While Ostreicher was still in jail, a film crew from ABC’s Nightline interviewed him. During that news show, Ostreicher called his experience “an absolute nightmare. I feel all alone. I am begging the American people to help me.” He stated that he was “absolutely 100 percent innocent.”
During the television newscast, he talked of his heartbreak after receiving a letter from his then 10-year-old grandson, who asked Ostreicher to send him a photo so he wouldn’t forget what he looked like.
Ostreicher also spoke of spending 22 hours a day in his cell and losing 40 pounds.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who had been working for Ostreicher’s release, said in a statement that he is “thrilled by the reports that Jacob Ostreicher, my constituent … is finally free.
“He has suffered greatly and his family has worked tirelessly for his freedom,” continued Nadler. He “was the victim of a horrible miscarriage of justice and endemic corruption within the Bolivian justice system.”
In August 2012, Rep. Smith sponsored Jacob’s Law, which continues to linger in committee. If it had been adopted, the law named in Ostreicher’s honor would have given the United States the power to deny entry into this country to officials of any foreign government and their family members who are involved in human rights violations against a jailed American.
Smith has held two congressional hearings on the matter and met with Ostreicher in Bolivia at least twice. During a May 20 hearing on Capitol Hill, Smith stated that “the record — including testimonies — established that Mr. Ostreicher is innocent, and is the victim of an elaborate, high-level government extortion ring that has fleeced approximately $27 million worth of assets from the rice operation that he had been managing.”
Also testifying during that hearing was Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn, who said that Ostreicher’s only crime was “to have brought a successful rice concession and well-paying jobs to Bolivia.”