Locked In Infamous Colombian Prison, US Man Faces Trial

| by Nik Bonopartis
Jail cellJail cell

Patio 16, a ninth-floor wing of Colombia's infamous La Picota prison, gets no sunlight. Inmates have access to running water for only about two hours per day, but the water isn't safe to drink without being boiled first.

Without access to basic medical care, inmates living in the filthy prison often suffer skin and respiratory infections.

Some men eat off the floor. Some sleep in the hallways instead of crowded cells without mattresses.

Feces pile up in the prison toilets during the 22 hours per day the water isn't running. One former inmate says he used to smear deodorant on the walls to mask the nauseating smell of the place.

La Picota is home to members of Colombia's drug cartels and gangs, narco-terrorists, minor warlords -- and, for about two months in 2015, an American businessman accused of securities fraud.

Kaleil Isaza Tuzman is a Harvard-educated technology executive who has hobnobbed with presidents, served on the Council on Foreign Relations, and once starred as the subject of a documentary on the dotcom bust.

Tuzman and his supporters say he's a technology visionary, humanitarian and American patriot, a guy who pulled himself up from humble beginnings. But federal prosecutors say Tuzman is a scammer who represents Wall Street excess, a man who allegedly defrauded investors in a company he founded by artificially inflating the firm's share price.

One fact that's not in dispute is that Tuzman has been festering in Colombian prisons for six months, and has begged U.S. authorities to bring him home to face trial.

“His life is in danger,” his mother, Ani Tuzman, told Bloomberg in November 2015. “He’s sick. There is violence and assaults that are part of everyday life at La Picota. Every day I wake and I don’t know if he’s still alive. This is beyond anything I could imagine.”

Tuzman himself described the prison as "a 'Lord of the Flies' type environment" in an interview with the Miami Herald about U.S. prisoners awaiting extradition in Colombian prisons. With prisoners rarely watched by guards, inmates quickly establish a pecking order, as characters do in the seminal 1954 novel.

Tuzman was arrested on Sept. 7, 2015, in Colombia, where he was working on plans for a luxury hotel. In an indictment, federal prosecutor Preet Bharara accused the 44-year-old New Yorker of accounting fraud, and American authorities asked their Colombian counterparts to take Tuzman into custody.

The charges are linked to KIT Digital, a video streaming start-up Tuzman founded in 2008. Tuzman and Robin Smyth, the company's chief financial officer, used "a number of schemes ... to defraud the company's investors and auditors by materially misstating KIT Digital's financial statements and other public disclosures," the indictment alleges.

Specifically, the feds say Tuzman's company reported $1.5 million in earnings from software it never actually produced, a relatively small fraction of the company's total revenue, and "hid the loss of approximately $2 million in cash or cash equivalent with an offshore money-management firm." Smyth is also accused of taking $8 million -- which was supposed to be used to acquire another company -- to create a slush fund, which they allegedly used to hide losses.

Tuzman maintains his innocence, and his attorneys have said he wants to return to the U.S. as soon as possible to face the charges in federal court.

Tuzman remained in La Picota -- which literally translates to "the pillory" -- until late November 2015. The businessman shared a cell with an accused drug trafficker and an alleged assassin, his attorneys claimed in a report obtained by Reuters. Because Tuzman's arrest was trumpeted by a press release from Bharara's office, and led to stories in New York tabloids as well as publications like the Wall Street Journal, other inmates in La Picota began to lean on him, his attorneys said.

After U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe called federal prosecutors to task for allowing Tuzman to be held in "appalling" conditions, Colombian officials moved the American businessman to another maximum security facility.

Tuzman has been living in mostly solitary confinement in the facility known as "The Bunker," according to Susan Olshuff, a supporter who organized a petition on behalf of the imprisoned New Yorker. As of Feb. 28, the petition had attained 1,649 signatures of its 2,500 goal.

As the Miami Herald noted, U.S. citizens who are serving time in Colombian jails are awaiting extradition and their day in court, and have not been convicted of any crime. The paper detailed innumerable human rights abuses in the prisons, details confirmed by organizations like Justice for Colombia and Human Rights Watch.

Andres Felipe Rios, 51, an American who was also awaiting extradition from Colombia, told the Herald he's served time in some of America's worst prisons.

“There, at least, you’re treated like a human,” he said. Here, “we’re practically living like caged animals.”

Tuzman's supporters say he was never a flight risk, as the U.S. government alleges, and that he was set to return to the U.S. just days before his arrest, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with his family.

Despite his attorneys' best efforts, Tuzman's supporters said he will languish in Colombia's "Bunker" indefinitely, because U.S. authorities say they can't speed up the extradition process. To do so would damage diplomatic relations with the country, federal prosecutors claimed.

Tuzman's friends and family say he just wants his day in court. Jens David Ohlin, a professor of international law at Cornell Law School, said it's rare to see a situation like Tuzman's, where federal prosecutors have an American citizen arrested abroad without warning.

“I’ve never encountered anything like this situation before,” Ohlin told Bloomberg. “It’s a rare situation where someone is fighting with the U.S. on how quickly they can get back here to stand trial.”

RELATED: Demand Safety and Fair Treatment for Kaleil Isaza Tuzman

Sources: Bloomberg, Miami Herald, Reuters, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wall Street Journal / Photo credit:

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