Updated at: 12/19/2012 8:06 PM
By CARLOS VALDEZ and IAN JAMES
(AP) 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.
Prosecutors issued an order for the arrest of magistrate Ariel Rocha after he failed to appear before an investigating commission, making him the highest judicial official implicated in the scandal.
The accusations against the judge were announced a day after New York businessman Jacob Ostreicher was granted house arrest. He was jailed in a money laundering case in June 2011 but was never charged with any crime and said that tens of millions of dollars in rice, cattle and farm equipment were 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 the city of Santa Cruz on Wednesday. He said it will take time to adjust after 18 months of detention.
The 53-year-old American had been in a medical clinic for more than a month since being weakened by a liquids-only hunger strike. A judge on Tuesday released him saying that while authorities finish investigating his case he must remain at his home during nighttime hours.
Those who initially led his prosecution, including the No. 1 legal adviser in the Interior Ministry, are now themselves in jail, accused of belonging to a shakedown ring that authorities say preyed on people deemed to have deep pockets.
"Faith and family is what got me through this nightmare, and it will probably take me a while to deal with it. That’s why I still don’t have a smile on my face. It’s sad," Ostreicher told the AP on Tuesday night after his release.
He said his lawyers expect that within three or four weeks the case could be dropped, and he then hopes to return to New York. He said he hasn’t recouped any of the assets stolen from him.
"I feel totally destroyed," he said. "I have 11 grandchildren that I haven’t seen in almost two years."
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 public appeal to Bolivian President Evo Morales to order him freed.
"This never would have happened, never in a million years ... without the help of Sean Penn. What an incredible humanitarian," Ostreicher said. He said that after Penn met the president, "everything changed from that day on."
During his hearing on Tuesday, he said that newly assigned prosecutors spoke little and didn’t contest his lawyers’ arguments. Ostreicher met some of them afterward. "They gave me their hands and told me, `Just be a bit more patient and ... everything is going to work out,’" he said.
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.
"They robbed me of close to $50 million worth of assets," Ostreicher said. He said that in addition to the rice, about 900 cattle disappeared along with 37 tractors and harvesting equipment.
The case has become the biggest scandal to rock 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. Prosecutors raided his home on Tuesday but did not find him.
Prosecutor General Ramiro Guerrero said Wednesday at a news conference that the arrest order was issued due to information that Rocha had been "part of this network with some prosecutors and judges."
Ostreicher said both he and his lawyer have received threats, and the government has assigned an elite police unit to protect them.
Ostreicher had been advised to wear a bulletproof vest at all times in the medical clinic in recent weeks, and when it came time to go the courthouse he said one man in his security team took off his military helmet and told him: "You’re not leaving the clinic without the helmet."
He said he’s glad to have the team guarding him now. But once at home, Ostreicher said: "I don’t know how long they’re going to give me protection, so I don’t even feel secure in this place."
He said his only plan now is to wait for the day he can return to the United States.
"Right now I’m just thinking about being with my family. That is the No. 1 thing," he said. "I hope it happens sooner rather than later."
Associated Press writer Ian James contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)