LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A high-ranking Bolivian official was arrested Monday for alleged illegal enrichment from the sale of rice seized from a US businessman who has been jailed for 18 months without charge.
The American, Jacob Ostreicher, was arrested in a money-laundering investigation but no evidence has been presented in court to support the case against him. He claims his incarceration has allowed corrupt officials to fleece him, seizing 18,000 metric tons of rice from his farming venture and selling most of it.
The man arrested Monday and accused of receiving $9,900 in proceeds in a personal bank account from the sale of some of Ostreicher’s rice is Jose Manuel Antezana, an official in the Presidential Ministry who was named to the board of directors of the state-run Cartonbol cardboard company in 2010.
Prosecutor Javier Monasterios told reporters that authorities were investigating others in the case.
Ostreicher told The Associated Press that prosecutors told him there would be more arrests and that 11 people “who work for the government are under suspicion” for allegedly abuses of authority in his case.
“I’m very concerned that now that the story is finally going to break that, with 11 government officials involved in corruption, some officials are going to think that what better way to get rid of me but to kill me,” Ostreicher said from a clinic in the eastern city of Santa Cruz.
“So I have concern right now about not only my physical health but my safety,” added Ostreicher, 54.
Ostreicher has been treated at the clinic for malnutrition from a liquids-only hunger strike he mounted to protest his incarceration.
After a Halloween visit from the actor Sean Penn, Ostreicher was sent to the clinic, where he says he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
US diplomats and New Jersey congressman Christopher Smith have also been visiting Ostreicher, an orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, NY, and interceding on his behalf.
The Associated Press has repeatedly questioned senior Bolivian officials about the case since last year, including its foreign minister and interior minister. The officials had said only that they would look into it.
A judge denied Ostreicher bail on Friday, but the New York man said he expected a new hearing next week.
Under Bolivian law, suspects may not be jailed for more than 18 months without charge.
Earlier this year, the regional director of DIRCABI, the state agency in charge of seized assets, was fired over the illegal sale of Ostreicher’s rice.
The American says he went to Bolivia to salvage a rice-growing investment after the local manager, whom he described as a Colombian con artist, defrauded investors and planted some of their rice on land owned by the brother of a Brazilian drug trafficker.
Prosecutors initially alleged that the $25 million invested in the rice venture was obtained illegally.
But they subsequently failed to present evidence supporting the allegations and authorities in Switzerland have vouched for Ostreicher’s Swiss business associate, Andre Zolty.
Ostreicher said he suspected from the moment of his arrest that Bolivian officials saw in him a golden opportunity to strip of all their assets a pair of foreign investors who had no clue how perilous Bolivian agribusiness would prove for them.
Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey issued a statement Monday evening saying he was cautiously hopeful that Antezana’s arrest was “a positive development and that Jacob is a step closer to freedom.”
“Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice has been delayed for a long time,” he said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.