DealBook: Entrepreneur, Charged in U.S., Recounts Abuse in Colombia Prison

Mr. Tuzman says his ordeal began in September 2015. He was on a business trip to Bogotá and was planning to fly back to Philadelphia days later for Rosh Hashana when, he said, half a dozen Colombian officers surrounded him and told him to go with them.

“My heart sank to my stomach because I thought a family member or business partner had been kidnapped and I was being taken to safety,” he told me in an interview. “Later, in a side room at the airport, they told me that actually I was being arrested. I begged to know why. All they would say was that it was at the direction of the U.S. government.”

Mr. Tuzman said he had no idea he had been charged, and, in contrast to many white-collar arrests, the United States government made no attempt to discuss with his lawyer the possibility of Mr. Tuzman’s surrendering voluntarily in the United States.

Mr. Tuzman was put in a cell in La Picota, a notorious prison.

“It had over a hundred people packed in it, stuffed against the walls and the rails, asking those of us in line for food, water, aspirin, whatever,” he said. “The stench of feces and vomit was overwhelming. There were literally people who had defecated in their pants.”

Mr. Tuzman assumed that he would be quickly extradited to the United States. But he soon found himself in “a parallel universe,” he said. “In the beginning, every day I thought: ‘They’re going to let me out tomorrow. They have to realize this is a mistake.’”

But weeks went by. His lawyers asked the United States Embassy to step in, warning that he could be abused or killed. When Mr. Tuzman’s lawyers recommended that he be released into the custody of a United States official and brought home where he could be rearrested, the United States authorities said their hands were tied by legal protocol.

That October, he said, he was raped. Within an hour, he told his lawyer, Amanda Blaurock of Pedley & Blaurock, about it during an in-person meeting. She then went to the United States Embassy.

When the Mr. Tuzman’s imprisonment in Colombia was finally brought to the attention of a federal judge, Paul G. Gardephe, in the Southern District of New York, Judge Gardephe said he was “shocked” by the government’s unwillingness to step in.

“There is credible evidence here that this man is undergoing significant abuse, to the point that there is reason to be concerned about his life,” the judge said. He also challenged the government to “tell me face to face they can’t do anything about the conditions this man is in, and that if he has to stay there for nine months, there is nothing they can do about that.”

Judge Gardephe lashed out at the prosecutors who recommended that, as an alternative to bringing Mr. Tuzman home, they could help him be moved to another prison, known as Cómbita.

“Having sentenced numerous Colombian defendants in this courtroom, and having heard over and over again about the conditions that they were in during the period of time that they were awaiting extradition at Cómbita,” the judge said, “it’s shocking to me that the government’s solution to the problem would be to transfer him to Cómbita. It’s shocking to me.”

In a later hearing, however, Judge Gardephe said: “To the extent that Tuzman has been mistreated in Colombia, there is no contention that the U.S. government engineered, arranged for or induced that mistreatment. Indeed, the evidence before this court is all to the contrary.”

Mr. Tuzman was extradited to the United States in July 2016. Why the prosecutors didn’t move more rapidly once he had been arrested — and why they arrested him in Bogotá instead of waiting until he came home — isn’t entirely clear. The prosecutors have made the case that he was a flight risk — that he might flee to the United Arab Emirates, where he had family and friends.

Still, he was publicly scheduled to speak at a conference in Florida about a month after his arrest. And he was not unknown to federal prosecutors. Mr. Tuzman is a Harvard alumnus and said, “I had been at my Harvard class reunion in Boston a few months before my arrest, and bumped into Preet Bharara,” who was then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. They have a mutual friend.

Mr. Tuzman is home in New York awaiting his trial. But he said he rarely forgets what happened after the rape: “A few days after the assault, I was put on what they call a prison trial, where the guards purposefully leave their lookout stations and go away. I was put on a table and accused of being a snitch for reporting what had happened to me. That’s the worst thing you can be accused of in prison. My knees were shaking. I thought it was the end of my life. I’m only alive now because I hadn’t given up their names.”

It took some cajoling to get Mr. Tuzman to open up. “It has taken me a very long time to feel prepared to talk about some of this,” he said. “You have to get past fear of reprisals, self-hate, all this other stuff that goes through your head.

“There’s a code of silence on this kind of prison assault, which was reinforced by an official at the U.S. Embassy who visited me in La Picota and told me things could get worse for me if I spoke to the press. But at some point, I guess, I needed to find meaning in all of this.”

The trial he faces in New York is no small matter. A jury will decide his case. But he said he needed to speak out about what had happened to him already.

“The U.S. effectively uses the extradition system and foreign prisons like those in Colombia as ‘black sites,’ even for holding American citizens,” he said. “I simply cannot understand why the United States would let one of its own citizens be subjected to this, and I want to help ensure it never happens again.”

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Source: New York Times

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