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“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 matter is one of three high-profile cases of American Jews overseas who remain either controversially imprisoned or held hostage.
What does the future hold for Ostreicher, Cuban prisoner Alan Gross, and Pakistani hostage Warren Weinstein? JNS.org examines all three cases.
In early October, lawyers for the 63-year-old 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,” Gross lawyer Jared Genser told JNS.org.
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 has 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 then to issue an opinion in mid-December. The group’s opinions are not binding under international law and there is no enforcement provision that couldcompel Cuba to comply, but Genser said a ruling in Gross’s favor could still be a significant step.
“Having an independent and impartial group in the United Nations saying that he’s been held in violation of international law provides a very strong political and public relations tool to put pressure on the government of Cuba to resolve the case,” Genser said.
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.
“Forty-four senators on one letter going to one foreign leader does not happen very often, and most importantly, a number of key members of Congress who have really been focused on trying to engage with the government of Cuba and advance an opening of the relationship have publicly said that until Alan Gross’s case is resolved, they’re not going to be prepared to press for [a] further opening,” Genser said.
That being said, ultimately 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 [presidential] election on Nov. 6, that either President [Barack] Obama or a president-elect [Mitt] Romney will be in position to make a new set of moves toward the government of Cuba after the election is over.”
After the election, Cuba “will know that it will be stuck with whatever person gets elected for four full years, and the government of Cuba does want some things from the United States,” Genser explained. For that reason, Genser believes it would be in Cuba’s interest “to resolve Alan’s case and to ultimately release him in the period of time after the election.”
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 with JNS.org 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 told JNS.org 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.”
At the very least, Turner believes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “has to send a letter to [the Bolivians] that she has reviewed [Ostreicher’s] case personally” and that she has concluded Ostreicher’s incarceration is unjust on both Bolivian legal and humanitarian grounds.
This June, Congressman Smith attended a hearing with Ostreicher during which a Bolivian judge passed the matter on to a higher court—a move “likely guaranteeing more months of delay,” according to the New Jersey legislator.
“Jacob has been cooperative, patient to the extreme,” Smith said in a statement. “There is no evidence offered against him. The rule of law must prevail in Bolivia. Innocent people must have a path to justice.”
Weinstein’s case differs from those of Gross and Ostreicher in that he is a hostage, rather than a prisoner. A 71-year-old aid worker from Rockville, Md., he has been held captive by al-Qaeda since August 2011 after being abducted from his home in Lahore, Pakistan.
According to police reports at the time, eight to 10 men approached Weinstein’s house on a ploy, tied up Weinstein’s three guards, and took him away.
At the time of his capture, Weinstein had been working in Pakistan for several years as a director of J.E. Austin Associates, a U.S.-based development contractor that advises different Pakistani business and government sectors.
A number of videos have been released since Weinstein’s capture. Late last year, the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, said in a video statement that Weinstein would be released if the U.S. stopped airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Al-Zawahri also demanded the release of all al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects around the world.
This May, Weinstein appeared in another video in which he said he would be killed unless Obama agreed to al-Qaeda’s demands. The White House has refused to negotiate with al-Qaeda.
Finally, this September, Weinstein’s captors released a third video in which Weinstein is seen looking exhausted while wearing a plain white t-shirt in front of a military fatigue backdrop, and he makes a direct appeal “as one Jew to another” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to work with the Mujahedeen for his release.
Weinstein’s situation is reminiscent of that of another Jewish-American who was held hostage in Pakistan—Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal bureau chief who was abducted and later killed by al-Qaeda extremists while investigating links to the failed “shoebomber” Richard Reid in 2002.
Unlike Pearl’s episode—which yielded widespread international news coverage and, after his, death a number of foundations named for him—Weinstein’s case has so far flown largely under the radar of the American public and the Jewish community. Outside of some media coverage of his videos, little action has been taken to facilitate his release.
Mike Redwood, a leather industry expert who worked with Weinstein in Pakistan, described to JNS.org that Weinstein “was very professional and certainly one of the best in the area I have ever worked with.”
“He was a true family man and worked hard to make family work with the complex international life he had,” Redwood wrote in an email. “He was clearly deeply committed to the work he was doing.”
Reacting to Weinstein’s capture and videos, Redwood remained hopeful.
“At least they show he is alive, and that must give us hope,” Redwood wrote. “Despite his age Warren is one of the cleverest and most resourceful people I know, but his capture has come at the most dreadful moment to hope for much cooperation between the governments of Pakistan and the USA.”
On the anniversary of Weinstein’s capture Aug. 13, his wife Elaine issued a statement appealing for his freedom. She said he suffers from a number of serious medical ailments, including a heart condition, severe asthma and high blood pressure, and she fears that his health “will deteriorate if he is not allowed to see the doctors and specialists that have helped keep him alive in recent years.”
Elaine also noted that it remains unclear why Islamic extremists captured Weinstein.
“Warren loves Pakistan and lived there for eight years so he could dedicate his time and energy to working with the people,” Elaine said. “I don’t understand why he was taken,” she added.