Actor and movie director Sean Penn added his star power to the effort by a NJ lawmaker to free a Jewish-American businessman being held in Bolivia on what many believe are trumped-up charges.
Penn testified on May 20 before the House Subcommittee on Human Rights. Like him, Rep. Chris Smith (R-Dist. 4), the subcommittee chair, has championed the cause of Jacob Ostreicher, 54, a Brooklyn businessman whose daughter and grandchildren live in Lakewood.
Ostreicher was in Bolivia to oversee a rice importing operation when he was arrested in June 2011. He was charged with doing business with people engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering.
He is now under house arrest after spending 17 months in Palmasola Prison.
Penn, who spends much of his off-camera life championing human rights causes, visited Bolivian President Evo Morales in October 2012 to appeal for Ostreicher’s freedom.
Penn told the subcommittee he was “firmly convinced of Mr. Ostreicher's innocence,” and was able to share exculpatory evidence with Morales, who received it, he said, “with tremendous personal and human grief.”
But Penn said the president was powerless to override what he called “a Mafia-proportion criminal network” inside the Bolivian judicial system that has kept Ostreicher in custody.
“Mr. Ostreicher’s only crime was to have brought a rice concession and well-paid jobs to poor Bolivians,” Penn asserted.
Although Ostreicher has partially regained his health after release from prison, he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, which has been exacerbated by his imprisonment and other harsh treatment, Penn said.
When the actor met him during a court session, said Penn, Ostreicher told him “These ‘expletives’ want to kill me. I am too dangerous to them as a witness.”
Penn suggested House members write letters advocating a boycott of next month’s Dakar Rally, a long-distance motor race through Latin America, by such major corporate sponsors as the oil company Total, Michelin tires, Honda, Mitsubishi, and Red Bull.
“The international pressure could be finally what the president of Bolivia needs to expel the malignant cancer” of corruption, the actor said.
Smith and three Democratic members of the subcommittee, Reps. Eliot Engel and Nydia Velasquez of New York and Karen Bass of California agreed to sign such a letter.
“Mr. Ostreicher is innocent,” asserted Smith. “He is the victim of an elaborate, high-level government extortion ring…. It is time that he came home to his wife, his family, and his friends.”