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A federal judge in New York said it’s “appalling” a former dot-com entrepreneur is in a Bogota prison where he’s been victimized while waiting to be extradited to the U.S. and gave prosecutors until next week to explain why he can’t be returned home immediately.
U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe hammered prosecutors during a two-hour hearing Friday over the detention of Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, 44, who’s been held at a maximum-security prison in Bogota called La Picota since September. He’s accused of defrauding investors while serving as chief executive officer of KIT Digital Inc.
Isaza Tuzman shares a 90-square-foot cell with an accused murderer and a drug trafficker in Patio 16, a wing of the Colombian prison reserved for often-violent defendants. At the hearing, Gardephe expressed concerns about Isaza Tuzman’s safety and cited a sealed report he’d received Friday from his lawyers about his condition.
"There is credible evidence here that this man is undergoing significant abuse to the point that there is significant concern about his life," Gardephe said. "I have to tell you that if it was my family member, I would want the government to make it their number one priority to do something about it."
Isaza Tuzman’s lawyers suggested that while still in Colombian custody, he could be transferred to U.S. officials in Bogota before being returned to New York.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Damien Williams argued that officials at the U.S. State Department and the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs had advised prosecutors that such a transfer was impossible now that the extradition process has begun and could harm diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Colombia.
Williams, who’d called Isaza Tuzman’s claims “uncorroborated,” said he wasn’t the only U.S. citizen wanted for white-collar crimes currently being held at the prison and said at least a dozen had been housed there in the past. Isaza Tuzman had rejected offers by Colombian authorities to send him to the “snitch” wing at La Picota or another prison outside Bogota called Combita, Williams said.
Gardephe, a former federal prosecutor in New York, reacted strongly, telling the government he’d had defendants appear before him who’d been imprisoned at Combita. He called both alternatives offered by the U.S. unacceptable, noting that since Isaza Tuzman has already suffered abuse at Patio 16, he’d be an even greater target if he were moved to a wing that houses cooperators.
"Having sentenced numerous Combita defendants in this courtroom, having heard the horrific conditions they were in, it’s shocking the government’s solution is Combita," the judge said. "It has shocking and deplorable conditions. To transfer him to Combita is just shocking. My concern is that we have an American citizen and credible evidence he’s in inhumane circumstances. What I’d like to see is extraordinary efforts to remedy this situation."
Reed Brodsky and Avi Weitzman, lawyers for Isaza Tuzman, said an option suggested by the government -- where their client would waive extradition -- would still mean that he’d have to wait months before his case was decided by Colombian courts.
Weitzman said U.S. authorities often conduct such transfers of suspects from the custody of another country, noting that last week two Venezuelan nationals were arrested in Haiti and brought to the U.S. for alleged drug trafficking.
"This is done and it’s in the government’s power to do it," he said. "They just say it’s going to harm the strongest bilateral relation the U.S. has in the Western Hemisphere. But we’ve seen nothing other than hypothetical concerns about diplomatic relations between Colombia and the United States."
At the end of the hearing, Gardephe ordered prosecutors to provide him with statements from the U.S. State Department and the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs explaining how Isaza Tuzman’s return might harm diplomatic relations with Colombia.
He also ordered prosecutors to provide him with the names and case numbers of all U.S. citizens accused of white-collar crimes who have been or are currently jailed at the prison to make up for the lack of details the U.S. provided in its legal filing.
The judge said Isaza Tuzman’s request was extraordinary but said the situation was one he’d never encountered before and seemed to be without legal precedent.
"What I don’t accept is that officers of our government who have responsibility for our citizens overseas aren’t doing anything," he said. "What I don’t accept is for a U.S. citizen who’s in deplorable conditions, suffering on a daily basis. What I don’t accept is they don’t have a responsibility to do everything in their power to ameliorate the circumstances before me."
Gardephe said if he wasn’t satisfied by the government’s written explanations, he’d hold a hearing in the matter and direct officials to appear in court to address his concerns.
"I am very, very concerned about the conditions this man is in as we speak," he said. "If the answer is ‘We can’t do anything about that,’ then I have to hear it from the Office of International Affairs and the State Department."
“I’m going to need to hear it from them, face to face," the judge added.