LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Six more Bolivian government officials were arrested on Tuesday, including a top Interior Ministry official, for alleged roles in a scheme to rob and extort a New York businessman who has been jailed for 18 months on suspicion of money laundering.
The American, Jacob Ostreicher, has argued since shortly after his arrest that he has been the victim of corrupt Bolivian officials who conspired to keep him in jail so they could sell off the 18,000 metric tons of rice they confiscated from him and extort him in exchange for promises to obtain his release.
"It was deliberate, premeditated and the plan was to take everything away from me," Ostreicher told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
He named as the "ringleader" of the alleged conspiracy the director of legal affairs in the Interior Ministry, Fernando Rivera, who was arrested Tuesday in the eastern state of Tarija while on government business.
Officials who announced the arrests did not offer details other than to say those detained were suspected of crimes including illegal enrichment and extortion.
Ostreicher accused Rivera, the seventh official arrested in the case, of seeking a $50,000 bribe in order to secure his release from prison. Healso accused Rivera of intimidating judges and prosecutors to keep him in jail despite a lack of evidence supporting the money-laundering allegations.
As director of legal affairs in the Interior Ministry, Rivera oversees major prosecutions, which include drug-trafficking cases. Bolivia is the world's No. 3 cocaine producer and also a major transit country for Peruvian cocaine.
The AP was unable to immediately reach Rivera for comment.
The other officials arrested in the case since Monday include a former top official in the presidential ministry, a judge who initially ordered Ostreicher freed last year only to reverse himself, and three officials of DIRCABI, the state agency that manages seized assets.
Bolivia's interior minister, Carlos Romero, said those arrested were involved in "a network of corruption and extortion that has involved government officials, private individuals and possibly had connections with the judiciary."
Although a subordinate of Romero, Rivera preceded him in the Interior Ministry, having been hired by a previous minister.
The former presidential ministry official, Jose Manuel Antezana, allegedly received a $9,900 commission from the illegal sale of some of Ostreicher's rice, which was sold while ostensibly in DIRCABI's possession.
Independent political analyst Roberto Laserna said that Ostreicher had, unfortunately, suffered from an affliction that Bolivians have also experienced: an inefficient, corruption-ridden legal system and a "counter-drug law that instead of presuming innocence, locks people up without any rights and seizes their assets, which later disappear."
"If the government wants to clean up its image it should arrest all involved," he said.
Ostreicher has been jailed without charge since June 2011 in the eastern lowlands city of Santa Cruz. The city is Bolivia's commercial center in its agricultural heartland but is also a nexus of cocaine trafficking.
Prosecutors have yet to produce evidence supporting their allegations he laundered drug money in a rice-growing venture in which he and a Swiss partner invested $25 million. They have not formally charged him.
Ostreicher says he was duped by the Colombian woman who initially managed that venture and who planted some of its rice on land owned by the brother of a Brazilian drug trafficker.
A high-level delegation of prosecutors and police huddled with Ostreicher in the private medical clinic where he is interned into the early hours of Tuesday questioning him about the case, he said.
Ostreicher has been suffering from malnutrition caused by a liquids-only hunger strike he mounted earlier this year to protest his incarceration.
U.S. Embassy officials and a U.S. congressman, Chris Smith of New Jersey, intervened on Ostreicher's behalf early this year but apparently to little effect.
After the actor Sean Penn visited Ostreicher on Halloween, the 54-year-old orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, N.Y., was sent to the clinic, where a government doctor diagnosed him with Parkinson's disease.
Ostreicher told the AP that he was to have been sent back to Palmasola prison on Tuesday, against doctors' recommendations, but that authorities yielded to last-minute appeals and agreed to delay his return by 48 hours.
Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak reported from Lima, Peru