LA PAZ, Bolivia – Actor Sean Penn said Tuesday that he's with Jacob Ostreicher after the New York businessman was secretly spirited out of Bolivia, where he's been fighting for more than two years to clear his name in a money-laundering investigation.
Penn said in an email that Ostreicher is safe, doing well and receiving medical attention at an undisclosed location.
In the statement sent to The Associated Press, Penn said a "humanitarian operation" had been mounted to extract Ostreicher "from the corrupt prosecution and imprisonment he was suffering in Bolivia." He didn't provide additional details or say who was behind it, and he didn't respond to questions sent by the AP.
Ostreicher 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 after Penn traveled to Bolivia and directly appealed to President Evo Morales to free him. An Orthodox Jew with a flooring business in Brooklyn, Ostreicher has claimed his innocence and complained that he was being fleeced by corrupt officials to drop the case against him.
While details of how Ostreicher fled Bolivia were sketchy, the Bolivian government reacted angrily to news of his departure, calling him a fugitive.
Justice Minister Cecilia Ayllon said she didn'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 Sunday night before boarding an LAN Chile plane in the Peruvian capital of Lima for a flight to Los Angeles.
"His escape demonstrates that he was involved in the crimes he's accused of," Ayllon said at a news conference, adding that Bolivia is alerting Interpol and could request the American's extradition.
The State Department said Tuesday it hadn't received any inquiries from Bolivia's government, and Morales didn't mention the case in a 10-minute speech at a summit of Latin American leaders in Caracas, Venezuela.
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, Morales 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.
In the absence of diplomatic relations, Penn has had a direct line to Morales.
In 2012 the Bolivian leader invited the Hollywood actor known for his friendship with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the land-locked Andean nation and its international campaign to regain an outlet to the sea and decriminalize the coca leaf. Penn didn't accept the proposal.
Penn told the AP a year ago when Ostreicher was freed from prison but barred from leaving the country that he would not give up on Ostreicher. Five months later, and frustrated with the lack of progress in the case, he proposed during testimony to a U.S. congressional hearing that Bolivia be cut from the Dakar motor sport rally unless it freed Ostreicher. The comments angered members of Morales' Cabinet.
Penn's involvement in Ostreicher's departure was just the latest twist in a bizarre saga that began Monday when the businessman's family contacted the AP saying they hadn't heard from him in a few days and feared he had been kidnapped.
Ostreicher's former secretary, Alicia Gutierrez, 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 in the city of Santa Cruz since traveling to La Paz on Friday to supposedly pick up some kosher food sent by his family.
Later, Aron Ostreicher called to say his brother might be in the U.S. and then the State Department confirmed that the businessman had arrived in the U.S. on Monday morning.
On Tuesday, the brother said that neither he nor anyone in his family had spoken to Ostreicher, though they had been assured by the U.S. government that he was recovering from his ordeal.
"He's safe, healthy, very tired but can't be seen," Aron Ostreicher told the AP, adding that he hadn't been given details of how his brother left Bolivia.
Corruption charges aired by Ostreicher from jail sent shockwaves in Bolivia's political establishment and resulted in authorities implicating a judge, the initial prosecutors and lower-level officials in an alleged scheme to shake down people deemed to have deep pockets in exchange for dropping cases against them.
His case first 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.