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Does Ostreicher’s Freedom Shed Light On Cases Of Other Jewish Prisoners?

While an air of mystery surrounds the details of Jewish businessman Jacob Ostreicher’s return to U.S. soil after he was held for more than two years in Bolivia, the involvement of legislators and a high-profile celebrity may shed some light on the conditions that might allow for the freedom of other high-profile Jewish prisoners.

Ostreicher, a 54-year-old Brooklyn native, traveled to Bolivia in December 2010 to oversee rice production and was arrested in June 2011 on suspicion of money laundering and criminal organization. No formal charges were ever brought against him, but he spent 18 months in prison before being released on bail in December 2012, after which point he had remained in Bolivia on house arrest.

News of Ostreicher’s escape from Bolivia broke Dec. 16, and little was known about the circumstances of his return to America until actor Sean Penn told the Associated Press on Dec. 18 that he was with Ostreicher following a “humanitarian operation” to free the Jewish businessman “from the corrupt prosecution and imprisonment he was suffering in Bolivia.”

Actor Sean Penn (left) with U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) after Penn testified on the case of Jewish prisoner Jacob Ostreicher at a May 20, 2013 congressional hearing organized by Smith. (Credit: Office of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith)

Actor Sean Penn (left) with U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) after Penn testified on the case of Jewish prisoner Jacob Ostreicher at a May 20, 2013 congressional hearing organized by Smith. (Credit: Office of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith)

In May, Penn testified on Ostreicher’s case in a hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), one of the leading advocates in Congress for Ostreicher’s release, had arranged that hearing and on Dec. 17 thanked Penn “for his tireless work to free Jacob.”

Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a recent conference call with reporters that, like the rest of the public, he doesn’t “have all the circumstances of [Ostreicher’s] escape” from Bolivia. But Richardson attempted to explain the conditions that may have fostered Ostreicher’s freedom, citing a meeting he had with Bolivian President Evo Morales a year ago as an example of the “quiet diplomacy” he and other key officials engaged in on Ostreicher’s behalf.

Richardson also said that in the efforts to bring about Ostreicher’s release, there was “intensive public pressure by many Jewish organizations” that was “very effective.”

“What needs to happen in successful releases is a combination of public pressure and private diplomacy,” Richardson said. “Those combinations in many cases are the roots for success.”

On Dec. 10, Richardson wrote a letter to President Obama calling for the release of jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who in November began his 29th year in prison. On the conference call, Richardson said he expects “sometime soon that I’ll get a chance to talk to [Obama] about several things,” including Pollard.

Asked what his main argument for Pollard’s release would be in a conversation with Obama, Richardson told JNS, “You want to make the most effective argument, and the most effective argument is on humanitarian grounds.” Pollard has “been punished enough, he’s been in prison 29 years, the man has suffered enough, he’s not well,” said Richardson.

Richardson said the Pollard case is “reaching a point where I sense some momentum,” through increased calls for his release by former government officials. Part of what has been holding back U.S. presidents from releasing Pollard is “the very strong opposition to the pardon in the intelligence communities,” but that sentiment is “receding,” Richardson explained.

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