The family of Zack Shahin, America’s longest-serving prisoner overseas, says the Biden administration has rejected their calls to bring the critically ill business executive home.
The administration’s apathy is particularly infuriating, they say, because Mr. Shahin is being held in a prison in the United Arab Emirates. Emirati President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan last week helped the Biden administration broker a surprise deal to bring home basketball star Brittney Griner from Russia, where she has been held for nine months.
“All of a sudden, the United States and the United Arab Emirates are teaming up to get [Brittney Griner] outside and my dad is just pushed aside a little bit. I don’t really have words for that. I was just blown away and a bit alarmed,” Mr. Shahin’s son, Remy Shahin, told The Washington Times.
Mr Shahin’s family say they are very happy for Ms Griner but “puzzled” that the State Department did not push for her release while the Biden administration was working with the UAE.
The UAE facilitated Ms Griner’s release, with Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed himself raising the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in October.
President Biden last week thanked the United Arab Emirates for its help in negotiating Ms Griner’s freedom.
This was Mr. Biden’s second prisoner exchange. He also secured the release of former US Marine Trevor Reed, who had been arrested and detained in Moscow.
For Mr Shahin’s family, it is the latest in a long series of frustrations since he was imprisoned in Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, in March 2008. He was arrested by authorities of the United Arab Emirates and accused of various financial crimes.
His family say the charges are fraudulent and insist on his innocence.
In the meantime, he’s missed birthdays, graduations, weddings and other milestones in his life.
Now family members wonder if they will ever see him alive again. Mr Shahin, 57, is currently being treated in a hospital in the United Arab Emirates for a host of illnesses ranging from infection in the lungs to rotting flesh and skin wounds caused by more than 15 years of living in poor conditions in Dubai prison, his family said. He is also diabetic and suffers from sleep apnea.
“I don’t think they are doing anything,” Mr. Shahin’s sister-in-law, Aida Dagher, said of the State Department. “They are using the UAE to broker a deal to bring Griner home. And the patient in the hospital? Why didn’t you say anything about him? It’s very, very frustrating for our family and everyone involved.
The State Department, White House and UAE Embassy in Washington did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Mr Shahin’s family say they are not surprised at the inaction. They were ignored by several administrations, and requests for updates on State Department diplomatic efforts were met with lukewarm responses.
State Department officials have even asked the family to resubmit their pardon letters in Arabic, often even toning down their content so as not to offend the UAE royal family, according to emails obtained by the Washington Times. Suggested changes included removing Mr Shahin’s illnesses from the letters and deleting a paragraph about his health issues.
“It took [the State Department] almost two or three weeks to submit our letters because they kept asking for changes,” Remy Shahin said.
In an email dated September 21, a State Department employee said he was speaking to prison officials about the possibility of Mr. Shahin’s family visiting him in prison. This was the last the family heard of a prison visit, they said.
Separate letters of mercy written by Ramy Shahin and his mother to the royal family of the United Arab Emirates were submitted to the State Department on November 23 and 24. After nearly two weeks of delay so that the letters could be translated into Arabic and toned down, they were finally released by the State Department on December 8, just days before Ms. Griner was released.
Ms. Dagher does not believe the timing was a coincidence.
” They put [the letters] on the side, especially during the Griner deal,” she said. “I mean the timing, the overlap can’t just be a coincidence that they block all of this while they use the UAE to broker a deal.”
Mr. Shahin, a naturalized American citizen born in Lebanon, worked for Pepsico and in the banking sector in the United Arab Emirates. He then accepted a position as CEO of a development company in Dubai.
On March 23, 2008, he was arrested for corruption, embezzlement and other financial crimes.
No formal charges were filed during the first 13 months of his detention. Mr Shahin went on a hunger strike in 2012 and was released on $1.4 million bail after the Obama administration raised concerns about his health. He fled to Yemen, where he was arrested months later and deported to the United Arab Emirates.
A court in the United Arab Emirates found Mr Shahin guilty of embezzlement in 2014 and sentenced him to 53 years in prison. His family says the charges are false and several organizations have championed his case.
It is the longest sentence of an American in a foreign country.
Diane Foley, who founded the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation after her son was killed in 2014 by Islamic State in Syria, has advocated for Mr Shahin’s release.
“Given his condition, it was particularly discouraging to learn of high-level talks with the UAE without any action on Zack’s case. We understand that these situations can be complicated, but we believe the U.S. government should strongly advocate with our close ally the United Arab Emirates to release our critically ill US citizen, Zack,” Ms Foley said.
Earlier this month, the Foley Foundation sent a letter to the UAE royal family asking for Mr Shahin’s release.
Detained International, a British organization that provides pro bono legal services to prisoners, also lobbied for Mr Shahin’s release.
Martin Lonergan, a British Detained International activist who met Mr Shahin in prison, said there was “complete indifference” from the Biden administration over the case.
“Not only is he being wrongfully detained, but Zack is also undergoing inhuman and degrading treatment which is clearly demonstrated by the fact that he is now in hospital because his body is rotting,” Mr Lonergan said.
Lawyers say Mr Shahin should be released under the Levinson Act, which has bolstered US efforts to support the families of Americans wrongfully detained abroad.
The bill, which was codified into law under an executive order last year by Mr. Biden, directs government agencies to improve engagement with the families of detainees. This includes sharing intelligence information with families about their loved ones and efforts to free them.
It also authorizes the United States to sanction those involved in wrongfully detaining Americans abroad.
The legislation also gives priority to people with health problems or detained in deteriorating conditions.
Mr Lonergan said Mr Shahin should qualify under the Levinson Act because of his health issues.
He and Ms. Foley submitted a request to the State Department to defend Mr. Shahin under the Levinson Act. It was turned down within five days, Mr Lonergan said – the fastest rejection he had ever seen.
“Brittney Griner confessed to drug trafficking…and yet she was filed under Levinson in five minutes. But she confessed to a crime and Zack never confessed to a crime.
Ms Griner pleaded guilty to the drug charges in a Russian court.
For now, Mr Shahin’s family say they are doing everything they can to get him back to the United States before his health deteriorates.
“I have no idea if my dad will ever come back to the United States unless he’s in a box,” Remy Shahin said. “I’m just scared and now finding out my dad has a lung infection. I have no words. All it takes is a phone call, but we continue to be sidelined.