“There are, I think, almost 3,000 Americans in foreign jails. Almost all of them are in there for doing something.”
That is the assessment given to JNS.org by U.S. Rep. Bob Turner (R-NY), a leading advocate for the freedom of 53-year-old Brooklyn flooring contractor Jacob Ostreicher – who, according to his supporters, is wrongly imprisoned in Bolivia and therefore falls outside the “almost 3,000 Americans” cited by Turner.
Ostreicher’s situation is one of three high-profile cases of American Jews overseas who remain either controversially imprisoned or held hostage.
In early October, lawyers for 63-year-old Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for trying to bring that country’s Jewish community Internet access, announced that a doctor who reviewed Gross’s medical records found a tumor in his right shoulder that may be cancerous. The tumor is a “potentially life-threatening medical problem that has not been adequately evaluated to modern medical standards” by Cuban doctors, according to Dr. Alan A. Cohen.
Since that revelation, Cuba has been “surprisingly quiet in response, and I say surprisingly because typically they tend to be very aggressive at responding to claims about Alan’s situation, and I think the detailed nature of Dr. Cohen’s assessment has flummoxed them and they’re not quite sure how they can respond,” said Gross lawyer Jared Genser.
Gross, who lived in Potomac, Md., received a 15-year prison sentence even though he was working with “peaceful, non-dissident, Jewish groups” in Cuba, according to the U.S. Cuba convicted him of “crimes against the state.”
In August, Gross’s lawyers filed a petition asking the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to conclude that Cuba had violated Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – a treaty that guarantees freedom of expression and the rights to receive and disseminate information freely through any media of choice – by imprisoning Gross.
Cuba “didn’t point to anything [Gross] did beyond provide publicly available computer equipment to Jewish communities down in Cuba, and that falls squarely within the protections for article 19 of the ICCPR,” Genser said, making his ongoing detention “a flagrant violation of Cuba’s obligations of international law.”
Cuba has 60 days to respond to the UN petition. Gross’s team is expecting the UN arbitrary detention working group to hear the case in mid-November and to issue an opinion in mid-December. The group’s opinions are not binding under international law and there is no enforcement provision that could compel Cuba to comply, but Genser said a ruling in Gross’s favor could still be a significant step.
On Capitol Hill, the push for Gross’s freedom received broad bipartisan support in September, with 44 U.S. senators signing a letter to Cuban President Raul Castro asking for Gross’s release.
Ultimately, said Genser, it needs to be “the president and the secretary of state who are going to resolve this case, and my hope is that regardless of who wins the election on Nov. 6, that either President Obama or a president-elect Romney will be in position to make a new set of moves toward the government of Cuba after the election is over.”
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Jacob Ostreicher 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 have ever been brought against him.
On Aug. 31 this year, Ostreicher was denied bail. Congressman Turner, who represents the section of Brooklyn where Ostreicher lived, explained in a phone interview that according to Bolivian law, “you have to be charged within an 18-month period.”
Turner and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) are among the consistent advocates for Ostreicher’s cause. The problem, according to Turner, lies within the U.S. State Department, whose involvement, he said, was limited by virtue of being “bound by their own rules.”
Despite the “preponderance of evidence” showing Ostreicher’s innocence, Turner said that State Department officials have “their own bureaucratic procedures” and “don’t want to get out of their comfort zone.”
“They respect Bolivian law even when the Bolivians are not following it,” Turner said. “I think this is a time for outrage and not following bureaucratic procedures. It’s as simple as that.”