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The Value of American Citizenship Today

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There is a prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia that is commonly referred to as a ghetto.  There are walls surrounding a huge complex, and there are buildings within it, and in the center, a large open courtyard.  Prison guards apply little controls over the lives of the prisoners; it is the prisoners of Palmasola who run the show.  They even created an organization called the Disciplina Interna that governs their affairs; if you can even use the term govern.  There are few rules, and "stay alive" is on top of that list.

No food is served; lucky prisoners are permitted to receive visitors bearing gifts.  Those who have no one outside usually fight, steal, beg or die.  There are small grocery stores run by inmates for anyone who can pay. Most of the 3000 inmates do not live in cells, so they sleep on the streets; if they are spiritual enough, or crafty, they can go to morning prayers at the church run by clergy who are themselves prisoners and be granted permission to stay the night.

Prisoners with money on the outside can buy a private five square-foot cell, and be the envy of those who want the same.  The poorest of the prisoners who cannot support their families outside have their wives and children join them on the streets, inside the walls of Palmasola.  Those visitors can come, get a full body search and be granted access.  They get a stamp on their arms, and only if they can produce that stamp on the way out do they get to leave.

It's a rough, lawless place where the strong survive and the weak get lost or worse.  It is a place where even though everyone is checked upon entry, the drug trade is brisk and the cocaine is allegedly the finest you can buy. In the words of someone who just visited her husband, "if you didn't go in a drug addict, you will almost certainly leave as one -- if you leave at all."

The prison is home to murderers, rapists, thieves, drug dealers, smugglers and users. Major crimes, minor ones too all warrant a stay or a lifetime in Palmasola. But there is also another offense that gets you tossed into this harsh wasteland; upsetting the corrupt government of Bolivia's president Evo Morales.

Needless to say there is no kosher food, and nowhere among the many churches within the walls does a synagogue stand. So what does an observant Jewish man do when he gets incarcerated in Santa Cruz, and what could he have done to be put there in the first place?

For eleven months now an American man from Borough Park, Brooklyn, has been in Palmasola prison. Jacob Ostreicher, a 53 year old father of five and grandfather of 11, was arrested in June 2011 on suspicion of money laundering. Unlike in the United States, where one is innocent until proven guilty, the Bolivian prosecutor claims that Ostreicher was jailed because he failed to prove the money Ostreicher used for a land deal was obtained legally. The Bolivian government cannot prove that it was illegal, and after more than 25 hearings, no evidence can be found, nor has any been delivered to the court.

An American is sitting in a dangerous prison in a country with few ties to the U.S., and he has not been officially charged with a crime. In 2008 Ostreicher's Swiss money manager and some other investors purchased Bolivian cattle and rice fields for about $20 million. They hired a local woman to manage the business, and the woman allegedly embezzled the money, investing it with a drug trafficker.

It was only after Ostreicher filed charges against the woman for theft that his problems escalated. He was arrested on suspicion of laundering drug money when he filed the grievance against the woman, who is also now in prison.

He sits in prison and is fortunate enough to have his own cell.  His "pavillion" is run by a senior prisoner who takes what he wants when he wants and there is nothing anyone can do.  Family and friends who stay nearby the prison bring Jacob food, but since Passover last month Jacob has taken to eating a lot less.  His hunger strike of sorts carries a pained hope that his Bolivian jailers would not want a dead American on their hands.  However, it does not seem that anyone in Washington is paying much attention.  Miram Ungar, Ostreicher's wife would travel to Bolivia and spend weekends in the Palmasola cell with him. Lately, because of the fuss she is causing over her husband's captivity, the Bolivian authorities marked her as a scofflaw as well, which limits her ability to travel to see her husband for fear of her incarceration as well.

Bolivian law allows for a prsioner to be held for 18-36 months without a charge being filed, and it seems that they intend to keep Ostreicher there for as long as they can, if not longer.  At last significant legal proceedings, an an odd result was yielded. The defense received a letter from Interpol saying that Ostreicher was not wanted anywhere and it did not suspect him of any crime.  With that, in September 2011, the judge on the case believed there was sufficient evidence to release him and ordered Jacob's release. Yet, six days later he reversed his decision.  Ungar said that the judge later told them that he was threatened with jail time, so he backpeddled." That judge was promoted and the new judge resigned after five scheduled hearings. There is now no judge yet assigned to Ostreicher's case.

Ungar's recent campaign to get her husband released comes on the heels of hoping to no avail that backchannles and public leaders would help her husband. She has said that neither Senator Charles Schumer nor Kirsten Gillibrand have paid attention to her husband's case, and she said that her Congressman, Representative Jerrold Nadler, has been silent on the matter. She believes that if New York's congressional delegation pushes the United States State Department to act, they could move the scales of justice for Jacob. Until now, no one was involved and it appeared that no one wanted to be either. Last week, about 400 of Ostreicher's friends and family members came out to the Bolivian Mission by the United Nations to rally for his freedom.

Six busses came from Brooklyn, one from Monroe, New York, and media showed to document the sea of black jackets, white shirts and hats that blocked 43rd street between Second and Third Avenues. Among the supporters were Chasidic song man Lipa Schmeltzer, and Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents Ostreicher's neighborhood in Albany. Hikind rallied the crowd and declared that he is now actively involved in Jacob's case. He believes he can appeal to the right people in Washington to make something happen.

There is now a Facebook site devoted to Ostreicher's case, a Twitter feed, and a campaign website at www.freejacobnow.com. Additionally, there is a White House petition begun, and if they can get 25,000 signatures in one month's time, it will be brought to President Obama's desk. The bizarre part of any of this is that an American citizen was not charged, is being held in harsh conditions in a foreign prison and it seems that our leaders do not care.

Hikind yelled out over the megaphone at the rally, "How cheap is American citizenship today that a United States citizen can sit in a Bolivian jail without being charged for a crime and no one lifts a finger?"

One would think that in a crucial election year like this, our public officials would be using this case as their silver bullet for reelection.

One would think that an American life would be important to the people we send to Washington.

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Juda Engelmayer is the president of HeraldPR and Emerald Digital, and now a managing partner with Converge Public Strategies. His expertise are in the Corporate communications/Public Affairs/Crisis Communications areas of Public Relations, and (more...)

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