Judge's arrest ordered in probe into Bolivia extortion ring; US businessman under house arrest
LA PAZ, Bolivia – Bolivian authorities ordered the arrest of a judge in a widening scandal triggered by an American businessman's report of being fleeced and extorted by corrupt prosecutors.
Authorities ordered the arrest of magistrate Ariel Rocha after he failed to appear before a commission investigating the case, Prosecutor General Ramiro Guerrero said on Wednesday.
The arrest order was announced a day after New York businessman Jacob Ostreicher was granted house arrest. He was arrested in a money-laundering case in June 2011 but insisted he was innocent and said rice, cattle and farm equipment was stolen from him by corrupt officials.
"I almost feel like I'm in a dream," Ostreicher told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Santa Cruz on Wednesday. He said it will take time to adjust after 18 months of detention.
"Faith and family is what got me through this nightmare," Ostreicher said Tuesday night after the judge ordered him freed. He said his lawyers expect that within three or four weeks the case could be dropped, and then he hopes to return to New York.
"My 11 grandchildren, my wife told me I will not recognize them," Ostreicher said.
He thanked U.S. Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez of New York, both of whom had visited Bolivia to press for his release. He also thanked actor Sean Penn, who days ago made a direct public appeal to Bolivian President Evo Morales to order him freed.
Ostreicher said under the conditions set by the judge, he must remain at his home in the city of Santa Cruz during nighttime hours.
Ten officials have been arrested in the extortion ring that his case exposed, including two prosecutors and alleged ringleader Fernando Rivera, who had been managing Bolivia's most important prosecutions in the Interior Ministry.
Ostreicher was trying to salvage a rice-growing venture when he was arrested in June 2011.
The Orthodox Jew, who has a flooring business in Brooklyn, New York, complained from the start that he was being fleeced. His case had come to light after he accused the venture's original manager, a Colombian woman who also is jailed, of defrauding investors and falling in with a Brazilian drug trafficker.
Ostreicher says prosecutors and government employees illegally sold 18,000 metric tons of the venture's rice and stole equipment and demanded $50,000 to get him out of jail.
The case quickly became the biggest scandal to face the country's judicial system. Since then, more than 30 other complaints have been made to the authorities about the alleged extortion ring, Interior Minister Carlos Romero said.
Rocha, the wanted magistrate, is president of the Court of Justice of Santa Cruz and the highest judicial official under investigation in the scandal. Prosecutors raided his home on Tuesday but did not find him.
"The apprehension order was issued because there is information in our investigations that he had to a certain degree been part of this network with some prosecutors and judges," Guerrero said at Wednesday's news conference.
Associated Press writer Ian James contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.