Big Sponsors Set to "Rally" in Bolivia While An Innocent American Remains Captive

Jun 03, 2013 | Updated Aug 03, 2013

For two years, an innocent American, Jacob Ostreicher, has been unjustly held captive in Bolivia without having any charges brought against him. A major international motor sports event, the Dakar Rally, is set to take place minutes from where Jacob Ostreicher is held in captivity. I ask all of you to join me and members of the US Congress to call on Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) and the sponsors of the Dakar Rally: Total, Michelin, Honda, Mitsubishi Motors, Red Bull, Edox, Karcher, Aggreko and Maindru Photo, to demand Jacob's freedom as a condition of their support for the Dakar Rally in Bolivia.

Here's some more context on Jacob's story and my involvement:

In addition to my work as Founder and CEO of J/P Haitian Relief Organization, I also serve as Ambassador-at-Large for Haiti. It was as part of my work in support of the Haitian Government's reconstruction efforts that I first traveled to Bolivia to meet with President Morales, and in him I found a man sincerely dedicated to his people and their economic and social development.

It was shortly after that first trip that Jacob's situation was brought to my attention. As I learned more and more about the injustice Jacob was facing, I became more and more involved reaching out directly to President Morales for assistance. Over several months, President Morales was able to direct significant advances in Jacob's case, and it appeared at the end of 2012 that Jacob would finally return home to his family.

At that time, I wrote here about Jacob's situation and spoke of the corruption within Bolivia's Ministry of Justice as an existential crisis facing the country. Given the advances we saw at the end of 2012, I sincerely believed that "with the release of Jacob Ostreicher to a transitional period under house arrest that will inevitably lead to his exoneration and complete freedom, that existential crisis was abated."

Five months have passed, more than twenty Bolivian government officials connected with the extortion network that first imprisoned Jacob have been arrested or are on-the-run, and yet Jacob remains a captive of the Bolivian Judiciary without charges or evidence of wrong doing.

Meanwhile, Jacob has not been forgotten here in the United States. US Congressman Chris Smith, Republican Representative from New Jersey's 4th District and Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, has been working to bring attention and support to Jacob's situation. I would like to thank Congressmen Smith for inviting me to testify on Capitol Hill last week, and I would also like to thank all of the members of Congress who have been working in support of Jacob.

As all of our combined efforts have not succeeded in providing President Morales with the means necessary to finally free Jacob and take the next step in reforming the Bolivian Judiciary, in my testimony last week I proposed a new way forward in supporting Jacob and President Morales in this struggle. I would like to offer the following excerpts here from my testimony:

It is high-time [Jacob]'s elderly parents, wife, children and grandchildren receive him back in the United States to move on with their lives.

This tragic scenario is NOT Bolivia. It is NOT the Bolivian people. It is NOT the Bolivian President. What it is, is an example of the continuing of Bolivia's hundred years struggle in its fight for human rights and its revolution for freedom. In that revolution, Bolivians have demonstrated an extraordinary courage and will for sacrifice.

It is on that basis, and in solidarity with President Morales and the Bolivian people, that I offer the following:

Last week registration opened for the Dakar Rally. As the off-road driving enthusiasts among us are no-doubt aware, the Dakar Rally is one of the premier rally raid cross-country driving competitions in the world. Started more than 30 years ago as a race from Paris France across the Sahara desert to Dakar, Senegal, each year the Dakar Rally brings together hundreds of competitors in the motorcycle, car and truck classes to compete in a two week race covering thousands of miles of the world's roughest terrain.

For host countries, the Dakar Rally brings hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable donations, millions of spectators and tourists, hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity and a billion viewers from 190 countries through global broadcasting. While the net impact of the rally is at times controversial, many have shared sentiments like that of the Government of Peru which declared the Rally a "national interest" and the Argentine Minister of Tourism who called the Rally "the biggest promotional tool for tourism in Argentina's history."

For the past four years, the Dakar Rally has been racing through South America, and in January of 2014 for the first time ever, part of the race is scheduled to traverse southern Bolivia - making Bolivia the 28th host country in the Rally's history.

In fact, just last month, the Rally organizers completed a dress rehearsal across Bolivia's world-famous salt flats.

The Dakar Rally, one of the world's most prominent displays of the freedom and tenacity of the human spirit will be parading through Bolivia even as thousands of prisoners like [Jacob] sit in feces-filled cells, forgotten behind locked walls and surrounded by the sort of inhuman savagery we dream is only possible in existential nightmares.

The Dakar Rally is scheduled to celebrate the triumphs of human spirit and innovation on the same soil where the Bolivian justice system festers and loots the same from its innocent and un-charged victims.

The Economist has reported that "at least two-thirds of the prison population [in Bolivia] is on remand, awaiting trial." Awaiting trial.

So, I ask that you, the distinguished members of this Committee, join me in calling on the sponsors of the Dakar Rally to bring their influence to bear for the thousands of innocent victims of the Bolivian justice system - and especially for Jacob Ostreicher.

Starting with the Official Partner of the Dakar Rally - the petrochemical giant, Total - and then moving to each of the Official Partners - Michelin, Honda, Mitsubishi Motors, Red Bull, Edox, Karcher, Aggreko and even the Official Race Photographer, Maindru Photo; I ask that you use your influence to call on these sponsors to insist that their support for the Dakar Rally will require that either [Jacob] is finally freed to return to the US, freed (as the 18 months allowed by the Bolivian Constitution to be held without charge have already passed there should be NO discussion that could give an opening for too-late offers of expedited trial), freed as the first sign of good will, and of the intention on the part of the Bolivian Government and the ethical within its judicial institutions as they continue the long and difficult process of justice reform, OR the Dakar Rally will NOT enter Bolivia.

I am confident the good people in these companies do not want to support the perpetual imprisonment of innocents and will recognize the necessity of principled withdrawal should the Government of Bolivia fail to act.

They should do this for practical reasons too. Imagine the tragedy if one of their own people or one of the tourists following the Rally while passing through Bolivia were to become victims like Jacob and land behind bars without charges, without evidence against them and without rights.

As 2014 will be the first time that the Rally ventures into Bolivia, this first test run will only consist of one stage with the motorcycle class venturing across the Bolivian Salt flats. This is to say that if the Bolivian Justice System continues to deny [Jacob] the freedom that they themselves have indicated he is due - since they have not brought any legitimate charges against him - it is still possible that the Dakar Rally could exclude Bolivia.

This international pressure could very well be precisely what the President of Bolivia needs to be able to finally expel the malignant cancer of corruption that is killing both the Bolivian Justice System and thousands of innocent people like [Jacob]. By putting a clear cost for continued abuse of the justice system on the economic elites of the country, we may well be giving President Morales and the people of Bolivia the leverage needed to advance their heroic fight for freedom and justice in Bolivia to the next level.

So again, I ask that all of you join me in calling on the sponsors of the Dakar Rally: Total, Michelin, Honda, Mitsubishi Motors, Red Bull, Edox, Karcher, Aggreko and Maindru Photo to demand Jacob Ostreicher's freedom as a condition of their support for the Dakar Rally in Bolivia.