House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) plans to introduce legislation Friday that bans foreign government officials responsible for violating the due-process rights of imprisoned U.S. citizens abroad from traveling in the United States.
Smith announced the move during a subcommittee hearing Wednesday on Jacob Ostreicher, a Brooklyn native who has been held in Bolivia for alleged money laundering since June 2011.
"The United States cannot stand by and simply ‘monitor' the case when our citizens are being held hostage to international human rights standards," said Smith, who visited Ostreicher in June and described him as "extremely frail and weak."
Ostreicher, an entrepreneur, went to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in December 2010 to take over the management of a rice business he co-owns from a local manager after investors suspected she was embezzling money from the venture.
The manager had disappeared by the time Ostreicher arrived, but before leaving she had purchased land from alleged Brazilian drug kingpin Maximilliano Dorado, who briefly lived in Bolivia.
Bolivian authorities, upon realizing that Ostreicher's company was operating on his land, arrested the businessman on June 3, 2011. Since then, 22 hearings have been scheduled for Ostreicher's case, but each has been postponed due to the successful maneuvering of Bolivian government prosecutors, including demanding the recusal of judges. Ostreicher is being held in the notoriously corrupt Palmasola prison, where he has been denied access to a doctor. He has been on a hunger strike since April 13.
Smith lambasted the State Department, which declined to testify at the hearing, for failing to effectively take up Ostreicher's case.
"Although our own State Department officials are finally acknowledging that Mr. Ostreicher's due process rights are being violated, they continue to seem hesitant and uncertain about what action to take on his behalf," he said.
Former FBI special agent Steve Moore, who has also visited Ostreicher in prison, said in heated comments during the hearing that Smith's proposed legislation addresses a vast government blindspot.
"There are brave people in State, but there are cowards in State too," he said. "If Jacob Ostreicher dies in Palmasola prison, both the Bolivian government and the United States Department of State will have the same blood on their hands."
The State Department responded Wednesday that it continues to work hard on the issue, as U.S. officials have been in "frequent contact" with Bolivian officials to advocate for due process under Bolivian law.
"Mr. Ostreicher's guilt or innocence will be decided by the Bolivian judicial system," a State Department spokesman said.
"However, the Bolivian government should permit the judicial system to function properly and allow Mr. Ostreicher's motion be heard on its merits," spokesman Patrick Ventrell continued. "The Bolivian government's actions are deeply regrettable, and are resulting in unacceptable delays. We urge the Bolivian government to act swiftly to correct this situation by holding the bail hearing immediately and advancing the judicial process without delay."
Smith, on the other hand, says he is not convinced that Bolivian officials intend to take any action.
"While in Bolivia, I met with Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Juan Carlos Alurralde, Minister of Government Carlos Romero Bonifaz, and Minister of Justice Cecilia Ayllón Quinteros to advocate for Mr. Ostreicher's release," he said. "Each of them have made commitments with respect to this case but have not followed through."
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Yimmy Montano, one of Ostreicher's Bolivian attorneys, believes his client is "being used by Bolivia to get back at the U.S. after a Miami court last year sentenced Gen. Rene Sanabria, Bolivia's top-ranking antidrug official, to 14 years in jail for trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S."
Jerjes Justiniano, Ostreicher's second attorney, says there is no logical reason for his client's treatment.
"I do not understand how an American citizen can be treated this way, having invested in Bolivia and given jobs to indigenous Bolivians, reaching higher salaries than the government itself pays to the police," Justiniano said at Wednesday's hearing. "This approach demonstrates a clear interference by the executive on the judiciary."
Ostreicher's wife had harsh words for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which she says told her that he husband's situation is a symptom of a larger problem.
"The U.S. Embassy reported that it is the opinion of the UNCHR office in Bolivia that Jacob is not being persecuted or targeted by the government, but rather he is yet another victim of a brutally slow, inefficient, underfunded, and corrupt judicial system," the wife, Miriam Ungar, told the audience at the hearing. "As our Bolivian attorney will attest, the totality of what Jacob has experienced is not common."
Bolivia has had tense relations with the United States under the administration of President Evo Morales. In 2008, Morales accused U.S. antidrug officials of interfering in Bolivian politics and expelled them from the country.
Several individuals connected to the Morales administration have been convicted for cooperating with cartels in Bolivian and U.S. courts, the Eurasia Review reported in July. Morales himself has headed Bolivia's coca growers union since 1996. He was reelected chairman in July.
The new Libyan government won't hand over the man convicted for planning the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, but the Justice Department plans to keep hunting down the perpetrators, with or without him.
Senior lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates said last week that the top priority of the new Libyan government should be the rearrest and extradition of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was sentenced in Scotland for the bombing, but then released in 2009 on compassionate grounds because he was supposedly dying of cancer.
CNN's Nic Robertson actually found Megrahi and visited him in his Tripoli home yesterday, where he appeared to be comatose and near death. But Mohammed al-Alagi, the justice minister in Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC), said yesterday that the senators' request had "no meaning" and that the NTC had no intention of extraditing Megrahi to the United States or anywhere else.
"We will not hand over any Libyan citizen. It was Qaddafi who handed over Libyan citizens," Alagi said. He also criticized Qaddafi for handing over Megrahi to the Scots in the first place.
Pressed on the issue at today's briefing, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland would only say that the Obama administration was in touch with the NTC on the issue and that White House officials didn't think the NTC had made any final decisions on what to do about Megrahi.
"We need to let them get their feet under themselves as a governing authority, and then they have agreed that they will look at this … and I don't think we're there yet," she said, adding that the Justice Department had the lead on the issue.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd told The Cable that even if Megrahi is not rearrested or if he dies, the DOJ will continue to hunt down the remaining culprits of the attack.
"We remain firmly committed to bringing to justice everyone who may have been involved in the Pan Am 103 bombing," he said. "The Justice Department investigation into the Pan Am 103 bombing that was initiated on December 21, 1988, remains open and active."
He declined to comment on what exactly DOJ is doing in the Lockerbie investigation, nor did he give any reaction to the NTC's comments on the issue.
There's no consensus on what to do with Megrahi, even among those in Washington calling for his rearrest. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wants him brought to the United States. Mitt Romney suggested that he be brought to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In an interview with The Cable, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said he thinks Megrahi should be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. "There were a lot of people besides Americans who were killed in that bombing," he said.
"I think this guy should see justice, but I also understand that the Libyans want to handle it themselves," McCain said. "Let's see how they handle it. As long as we can ensure justice was done, I think the families of the victims would be OK with that."
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) doesn't believe that Megrahi is near death, and he is angry at the NTC for refusing to hand him over.
"This wouldn't be the first time that Libyan officials claimed al-Megrahi was on his deathbed. We're going to need a lot more verification than the word of local Libyan officials," Schumer said. "There is no justifiable basis for the rebels' decision to shield this convicted terrorist."
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said on Monday that the first order of business for the new Libya government, after it secures control over the country, should be to hand over the man responsible for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.
"The world is about to be rid of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the brutal tyrant who terrorized the Libyan people. It is my hope that Libya will now move toward a representative form of government that supports freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. As a first step, I call on this new government to arrest and extradite the mastermind behind the bombing of Pan Am 103, Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi, so justice can finally be done," Romney said in a statement Monday.
Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer and the former head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in Scotland in 2001. Qaddafi agreed to pay the Lockerbie victims about $2.7 billion in 2002 as part of a deal that saw Libya's gradual reintegration into the world community, and led to Qaddafi's regime being taken off the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Megrahi was released under compassionate grounds in 2009, under the belief he was dying of cancer, with only months left to live. He is reportedly still alive. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on Megrahi in September 2010 to investigate how the decision to release Megrahi was made, but no British officials agreed to testify.
Last month, Megrahi was spotted on video at a pro-Qaddafi rally in Tripoli.
It's not only Romney who has lamented the decision to release Megrahi, and called on the new Libyan government to transfer him back to international custody.
"The families of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103 have suffered so much
already, and the images of Megrahi at a pro-Qaddafi rally in Libya only add
salt to their wounds," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) on July 27. "Parading one terrorist
out to support another is an affront to justice and further affirmation that
Megrahi was released from prison on false pretenses. We will continue to
fight for justice on behalf of the Pan Am 103 families."
In June, Lautenberg and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder to put the Megrahi issue at the top of the U.S. agenda when dealing with a new Libya government.
"While we recognize there are many critical foreign policy decisions to be made with regard to Libya at this extraordinary time, we ask that justice for the Lockerbie victims and their families remain a top priority and not be overlooked," they wrote.
Romney has been a critic of the Obama administration's approach to Libya, saying that the United States should lead on such international issues rather than playing second fiddle to European countries.
"America has been feared sometimes, has been respected, but today, that America is seen as being weak. We're following the French into Libya," he said in March. "I appreciate the fact that others are participating in this effort, but I think we look to America to be the leader of the world."
Romney supported the military intervention in Libya but criticized Obama for relying too much on multilateral organizations for legitimacy.
"[Obama] calls for the removal of Moammar Gadhafi but then conditions our action on the directions we get from the Arab League and United Nations," Romney said in March. "He's tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced."
In July, when the war appeared to be at a stalemate, Romney further criticized Obama for not explaining the endgame in Libya and for exceeding the mandate provided by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.
"We approved the humanitarian mission as a people," he said. "We did not approve an expanded and muddled mission, which is what we see."
UPDATE: Gov. Rick Perry's campaign issued this statement on today's Libya news:
The crumbling of Muammar Ghadafi's reign, a violent, repressive dictatorship with a history of terrorism, is cause for cautious celebration. The lasting impact of events in Libya will depend on ensuring rebel factions form a unified, civil government that guarantees personal freedoms, and builds a new relationship with the West where we are allies instead of adversaries.
Former Gov. John Huntsman's campaign sent out the following:
The impending fall of Colonel Gaddafi is one chapter in the developing story of a nation in turmoil. Gaddafi has been a longtime opponent of freedom, and I am hopeful -- as the whole world should be -- that his defeat is a step toward openness, democracy and human rights for a people who greatly deserve it.
UPDATE #2: Menendez called for Megrahi to be expedited to the U.S. in a Monday afternoon statement sent to The Cable.
The Qaddafi reign of terror is ending and the TNC, as the legitmate government of Libya, must move quickly to embrace democratic reform. To that end the, TNC should extradite al-Megrahi to the United States to answer for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103. There would be no better signal to the world that a new Libya believes in justice and has every intention to adhere to international law.
Contractors working for U.S. embassies throughout the Arab world have been abusing foreign workers through unsanitary living conditions, coercive hiring practices, and a host of other indignities, according to a new State Department report released Monday.
The State Department's Office of the Inspector General looked into six contracts at the U.S. embassies in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and at two consulates general in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. It found what it referred to as indicators of coercion (confiscation of documents at the work destination), indicators of exploitation (bad living conditions and payment issues), and indicators of abuse of vulnerability (absence of language education and general abuse of a lack of information).
The six contracts examined -- for the employment of janitors, gardeners, and guards at these diplomatic posts -- totaled about $18 million.
"More than 70 percent of foreign contract workers live in overcrowded, unsafe, or unsanitary conditions, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.," the report stated. "In Riyadh, the embassy's 19 gardeners share a dilapidated apartment building with numerous fire and safety hazards."
Janitors in Abu Dhabi get an average of 24 square feet of living space. (By way of comparison, federal prisoners in the U.S. typically get between 45 and 60 square feet.) In Abu Dhabi, 8 to 10 workers bunk in a 12 by 18-foot room; there are only 15 to 20 bathrooms in a camp there that houses over 450 people. According to the report, the contractor in charge of those workers led the OIG investigators on a wild goose chase, first taking them to a building that was not actually where the workers lived.
What's more, workers of different nationalities often received different wages for doing the same jobs. For example, a Bangladeshi janitor at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh gets paid $4.44 a day. A worker of Indian origin doing the same job makes double, $8.89 a day, the report found. At the U.A.E. embassy, most guards make $22.71 a day, equal to the minimum wage. But the Ethiopian guards there make only $13.62 per day, well below the legal minimum.
Workers at the U.S. embassy in Kuwait weren't aware they are entitled to two weeks of vacation per year, leading one employee to work eight straight years without taking any time off whatsoever.
The report said there was no "severe" abuse, defined as conduct that clearly violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which would include sex trafficking or illicit activities related to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery. But since there's no clear monitoring system for trafficking violations, the OIG ultimately couldn't say if trafficking violations were occurring.
Seventy-seven percent of workers interviewed said they had to pay a recruitment fee to get their jobs at the embassies and over 50 percent of those said their fee was greater than six months salary. Every contractor examined by the OIG confiscated the passports of their workers. Inappropriate garnishing of workers' wages was rampant, and most workers were forced to seek extra, often-illegal second jobs to supplement their salaries.
The OIG set forth seven recommendations for better protecting contract workers. These include the suggestion that embassies discuss local labor laws with contractors, monitor compliance and even require certification of contractors, and require that contractors explain labor laws to their workers. It also recommended that the State Department's Bureau of Administration should increase its training on the issue.
Most of the embassies investigated agreed with the OIG's report, but the Bureau of Administration's Office of the Procurement Executive (A/OPE) disagreed with all seven of the OIG's recommendations. The U.S. embassy in Riyadh provided no comments on the report whatsoever.
The OIG called A/OPE's explanations for why it disagreed with the recommendations "unclear and unresponsive to the intent of the recommendations."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.