Three US Jews Still Held Hostage Overseas
By: Jacob Kamaras and Sean Savage
Published: October 24th, 2012
"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 situation is one of three high-profile cases of American
Jews overseas who remain either controversially imprisoned or held hostage.
In early October, lawyers for 63-year-old Alan 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," said Gross lawyer Jared Genser.
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
In August, Gross's lawyers filed a petition asking the United Nations
Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to conclude that Cuba had 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 to issue an opinion in mid-December. The group's
opinions are not binding under international law and there is no
enforcement provision that could compel Cuba to comply, but Genser said
a ruling in Gross's favor could still be a significant step.
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.
Ultimately, said Genser, 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 election on Nov. 6, that either President
Obama or a president-elect Romney will be in position to make a new set
of moves toward the government of Cuba after the election is over."
* * *
Jacob 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 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 said 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 past 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
"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."
* * *
Warren 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
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.
In 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 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, told 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…. He was clearly deeply committed to the work
he was doing," Redwood wrote in an e-mail.
On the anniversary of Weinstein's capture on 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 his health "will
deteriorate if he is not allowed to see the doctors and specialists that
have helped keep him alive in recent years."