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Bolivia releases imprisoned American after 18 months

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
December 19, 2012 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Jacob Ostreicher, right, is accompanied by actor Sean Penn during a press conference December 12 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
Jacob Ostreicher, right, is accompanied by actor Sean Penn during a press conference December 12 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jacob Ostreicher, who had been detained since June 2011, was released
  • A judge says the New York native will be under house arrest at night
  • U.S. lawmakers say it's the "first positive development" in the case
  • Six Bolivian officials were arrested in connection with the case last month

(CNN) -- A flooring contractor from Brooklyn, New York, received news he had dreamed of for more than a year when a Bolivian judge released him on bail Tuesday.

Jacob Ostreicher wore a white bulletproof vest as he spoke with reporters after the hearing.

Supporters of the businessman, 53, who had been imprisoned for 18 months, say he faces death threats for exposing Bolivian government corruption connected with the case against him.

"His life remains at risk every day that he remains in Bolivia," U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, said in a statement Tuesday.

Ostreicher was arrested in June 2011 on suspicion of money laundering tied to a rice-growing operation.

He has denied the accusations and has claimed for months that corrupt officials had trumped up the case.

Bolivian authorities arrested six government officials last month, accusing them of trying to extort and steal from Ostreicher.

Now some of his one-time accusers -- including former employees of the attorney general's office and the country's interior ministry -- are behind bars in the same prison where he was held.

Bolivia's state-run ABI news agency has described that facility -- the Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia -- as the country's "most dangerous and overcrowded."

On Tuesday, Ostreicher was released on bail of 100,000 bolivianos (about $14,200), and now will be in more comfortable conditions, although the case against him hasn't been dropped.

He will remain under house arrest from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., Judge Eneas Gentile ruled Tuesday, but can move freely at other times.

Smith and U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-New York, praised Ostreicher's release as the "first positive development" in the case.

"But this is only the beginning of the end," Smith said. "Jacob has incurred permanent damage to his health and has lost over 18 precious months of his life with his wife, children and grandchildren."

After the hearing, an ambulance transported Ostreicher to a clinic where he is being treated for Parkinson's disease, ABI reported.

In an interview with CNN en Español from a hospital bed earlier this month, Ostreicher said he was wearing a bulletproof vest out of fear for his safety, even as officials had been arrested in the corruption probe connected with his case.

"Actually I feel much less safe. That's why you see me sleeping with this bulletproof vest," he said. "Because now there are some officials in prison."

The detention of Ostreicher, who at one point went on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment, drew international attention. Actor Sean Penn sat at his side last week, calling for his release.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Ostreicher said his case was only one of many in the South American country.

"I want Bolivia to know that not only my family and I have been victims of these extortioners who are detained today. Also hundreds of Bolivian families have been victims, and the greatest victim has been President Evo Morales, for which these people deserve to be punished with the harshest penalties that exist," he said, according to ABI.

Demonstrators outside the courthouse Tuesday both advocated and denounced Ostreicher, CNN affiliate Bolivision reported.

Some claimed he had taken over land in Bolivia without paying for it.

But members of Bolivia's Jewish community said Ostreicher, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, had been unjustly accused. Some of them held signs in Hebrew.

"He is one more Jew who is the victim of persecution," one man said. "We hope justice is done. We hope he is freed. Being free, he can defend himself. We hope that all of his property which has been seized, practically robbed, is returned to him."

Word of Ostreicher's release was posted on the "Free Jacob Ostreicher" Facebook page Tuesday.

Below a series of news reports, there were photos of crestfallen children posted last week.

"Hanukah without our grandfather - second year that we spend it without him," one caption said.

Journalist Gloria Carrasco reported from La Paz, Bolivia, and CNN's Fernando del Rincon and Mariano Castillo contributed to his report from Atlanta.

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