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American on hunger strike after 11 months in Bolivian prison

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
May 12, 2012 -- Updated 1718 GMT (0118 HKT)
Jacob Ostreicher, shown in this undated photo, has been in prison for nearly a year.
Jacob Ostreicher, shown in this undated photo, has been in prison for nearly a year. "He's not doing well," his wife says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jacob Ostreicher has been in prison since June 2011
  • He has not been formally charged
  • Family is suspicious of reasons behind his arrest
  • Lawyer criticizes the Bolivian justice system

(CNN) -- An American man, jailed without formal charges in Bolivia for 11 months, is nearing one month on a hunger strike to call attention to his case.

Jacob Ostreicher, 53, became ensnared in a criminal investigation linked to drug money and was arrested in June of last year on a preliminary charge of money laundering.

But his wife and lawyer say they have proven that the source of all the money is legitimate, and wonder if other forces are keeping Ostreicher, a businessman from Brooklyn, locked up.

Since his arrest, at least 15 hearings have been scheduled, but only three have actually taken place.

After hearing the defense team during one of those sessions last year, a judge ordered Ostreicher released on bond. His family paid, but before Ostreicher left the grounds of the notorious Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz, the judge unexpectedly rescinded his own decision.

A new judge was assigned recently, but the case has not moved forward in months.

The Bolivian prosecutors in the case were not available for comment.

In mid-April, Ostreicher began a hunger strike, hoping to kickstart the justice system in Bolivia as well as to rally support back home. Supporters in New York held a demonstration for Ostreicher in front of the Bolivian Mission there this month.

The back story of his arrest is complex. It starts with an investment that Ostreicher, an Orthodox Jew and flooring contractor, made in 2008 in a rice operation in Santa Cruz. A group of investors saw opportunity in growing rice, and though Ostreicher didn't put down a lot of money, he began traveling to Bolivia to look after the project, his supporters say.

Ostreicher told CNN in a telephone interview from prison last year that what he found in Bolivia was that the investors had been swindled by the woman who they hired to run the project, who had ties with a Brazilian drug trafficker. Ostreicher fired the woman and tried to set things straight, but the ownership of the land was tied to the drug trade and he found himself a suspect.

Ostreicher's detention comes at a low point in U.S.-Bolivian relations. Under leftist President Evo Morales, the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia was expelled in 2008 in a diplomatic row.

His supporters are suspicious that the judge who reversed his decision on his release was subsequently promoted. But no corruption has been proven.

Yimy Montano, Ostreicher's Bolivian attorney, said that the real problem may not be a conspiracy against him, but the result of an ailing justice system under Morales.

"The justice system is passing through one of its worst moments, and Mr. Jacob is suffering the fallout of that," he said.

Many Bolivians face the same kind of maddening delays, he said.

Still, Montano said, the court's decision to keep Ostreicher jailed is confounding.

At the most substantive of the hearings, the defense presented more than 1,000 translated documents that showed the source of all of Ostreicher's investment and proved it came from legitimate sources, Montano said.

"Penny by penny, we've shown that every cent came into the country legally," he said.

Prosecutors told CNN in September that they are suspicious of Ostreicher because of the lengths he went through to try to recoup the investors' losses and his continued negotiations with the landowner.

But prosecutors have not presented any evidence to back up their claims, Montano said.

"I don't know why he remains in prison," he said.

Under Bolivian law, a suspect can be held on preliminary charges for 18 months, at which time the state has to file formal charges or dismiss them.

"We're just in limbo. As far as I'm concerned, Jacob has been kidnapped," said his wife, Miriam Ungar. "There's no end to this."

Ungar and Montano said that Ostreicher's condition has deteriorated since he began his hunger strike.

"He's not doing well," she said.

Ungar shared her story with CNN and others in September of last year, and said she faces legal action by the state because of her comments.

Court documents show that the state ordered a prosecutor to begin an investigation into obstruction of justice by Ungar, her lawyers, Ostreicher and others who spoke to the media.

"It's in the back of my mind. I am afraid of it," she said of the possibility of facing charges herself.

All this happened right before the hearing where the judge ordered Ostreicher released before changing his mind.

Montano said that at this point, he wants Ostreicher to go to trial.

"We want him to be absolved," he said.

In the meantime, despite his delicate health, Ostreicher is refusing to end his hunger strike.

"It's the only way to be heard," Montano said.

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