LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) – Bolivia's government expressed outrage Tuesday over American businessman Jacob Ostreicher's mysterious departure from the Andean nation, calling him a fugitive who sneaked across the border into Peru with the help of unknown groups.
Justice Minister Cecilia Ayllon said she doesn't know whether the U.S. government played a role in Ostreicher's escape, saying only that he duped authorities at an unspecified border crossing on Sunday night before boarding a Los Angeles-bound, LAN Chile plane in the Peruvian capital of Lima.
She said Bolivia is alerting Interpol and could request the American's extradition as part of an ongoing money laundering investigation.
"His escape demonstrates that he was involved in the crimes he's accused of," Ayllon said in a press conference.
Ostreicher, who claims his innocence, spent 18 months in a Bolivian jail without charges on suspicion of money laundering while trying to salvage a rice-growing venture. He was released a year ago and put under house arrest in the city of Santa Cruz after actor Sean Penn and several U.S. lawmakers directly appealed to President Evo Morales to free him.
On Tuesday afternoon, Penn released a statement saying he is with Ostreicher, adding that he is safe, well and receiving medical attention at an undisclosed location.
Penn said Ostreicher needed to be extracted "from the corrupt prosecution and imprisonment he was suffering in Bolivia." He didn't provide any details about the operation or who was behind it.
Penn has taken a deep interest in Ostreicher's plight and traveled to La Paz a year ago to urge President Evo Morales to free him. After the visit, Ostreicher was released from jail and placed under house arrest while a money laundering investigation into the rice-growing venture he managed continued to work its way through Bolivia's justice system.
Details of how Ostreicher left Bolivia are still sketchy. His family contacted The Associated Press early Monday saying they hadn't heard from him in a few days and feared he had been kidnapped.
Ostreicher's former secretary, Alicia Gutierrez, also told the AP that she received a phone call from his presumed captors demanding family members travel to Bolivia in the next 48 hours while a maid, Victoria Rocha, said it looked as if he hadn't been home since traveling to the capital La Paz on Friday to supposedly pick up some kosher food sent by his family.
Later, Aron Ostreicher called saying his brother might be in the U.S. and then the State Department confirmed that he arrived in the U.S. on Monday morning without providing further details.
On Tuesday the brother said neither he nor anyone in his family has spoken to Ostreicher, though they've been assured by the U.S. government that he's recovering from the tiring episode in an undisclosed, safe location.
"He's safe, healthy, very tired but can't be seen," Aron Ostreicher told the AP, adding that he hasn't been given details of how his brother left Bolivia.
Bolivia has an extradition treaty with the U.S., but relations between the two countries have been strained since Morales, a former coca grower, expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008. In July, he threatened to close the American diplomatic mission altogether after accusing the U.S. of pressuring European allies to block his return from Russia on suspicion that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was aboard his presidential plane.
Ostreicher, an Orthodox Jew who has a flooring business in Brooklyn, complained from the time his was jailed in June 2011 that he was being fleeced by corrupt officials.
The case has resulted in Bolivian authorities implicating a judge, the initial prosecutors and lower-level officials in an alleged scheme to shake down Ostreicher and other people deemed to have deep pockets in exchange for dropping cases against them.
His case came to notice when he accused the struggling rice venture's original manager, a Colombian woman who also was jailed, of defrauding investors and falling in with a Brazilian drug trafficker.
Ostreicher charged later that prosecutors and other government employees had illegally sold 18,000 metric tons of the venture's rice and stole equipment as well as demanded a $50,000 payoff to get him out of jail.
"They robbed me of close to $50 million worth of assets," Ostreicher told the AP in an interview a year ago. He said that in addition to the rice, about 900 cattle disappeared along with 37 tractors and harvesting equipment.
Bolivian authorities have said since that 15 people had been arrested in the alleged extortion ring, including an assistant to the judicial director of the Interior Ministry.
Last June, prosecutors said two low-ranking officials among those arrested had pleaded guilty and were cooperating in hopes of serving less jail time.