In May 2011 this column covered the Kafkaesque tribulations of an American citizen, Zack Shahin, who was arrested in Dubai in 2008, held in isolation for months on end and denied bail. As we noted then, “Shahin still remains in jail on what appear to be spurious charges, with no trial date in sight. All this is happening in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which purports to be the forward-looking showcase of Arab capacity for liberalism and entrepreneurial flair.”
A year later, incredibly, Shahin is still in a Dubai prison, still without bail, trial, or conviction. On May 14 he started a hunger strike to protest the failure of the U.S. government to raise a public issue with UAE authorities over his treatment. “I have been imprisoned for over 1,500 days,” he said in a message from prison. “My government has never said a word about me publicly, because they don’t want to spoil their comfortable relationship [with the Emirates]. Meanwhile, they speak out for people in lots of other countries, like China. Do I have to die here before I get the same consideration? All I want is due process, to be able to post bail, see my family, and a fair chance to show in court that I am innocent. Is that too much for my government to ask?”
The background to the case is interesting and fairly straightforward. In the early 2000s the Emirates attracted thousands of foreign investors and experts of various profiles. Dubai one of seven states that make up the UAE experienced a real estate boom, with massive office towers, five-star hotels and premium retail space being built at staggering rates and—initially—commanding staggering prices. Over the ensuing six years, sand dunes were turned into a glittering metropolis, creating the world’s tallest building and the biggest shopping mall.
It could not last, of course. The downturn started rapidly in 2008, and a year later one-half of all the UAE’s construction projects, totaling almost $600 billion, were either on hold or cancelled, leaving unfinished roads and buildings along the edge of the desert. Yet when the crisis started four years ago Dubai’s autocratic rulers were loath to accept any share of the blame for the consequences. The foreigners were blamed for the mess and routinely presented as greedy and reckless predators.
Shahin, a former top executive of Deyaar Development, fell victim to the purge. He was arrested in March 2008 and accused of embezzling $100,000 from Deyaar, despite the company’s Board of Directors having approved this payment to Shahin as an incentive bonus. The expert auditor—a Dubai court-approved expert witness—informed the court in writing that all the transactions alleged by the prosecution to be unlawful were signed and approved by the Board of Directors and Chairman of Deyaar, reviewed by outside auditors, and subject to quarterly and annual audit since 2004 by Ernst & Young.
Shahin was nevertheless held in isolation for 13 months, denied U.S. consular assistance—in violation of international treaties to which the Emirates are a party—and while incommunicado allegedly tortured and forced to sign papers in Arabic he did not understand. After investigating one misdemeanor charge against Shahin for three years, it suddenly dawned on the prosecutor in early 2011—three years after the arrest!—that his court may not have jurisdiction over the case after all. He asked the judge to send the case back to the public prosecutor, and this maneuver enabled the prosecutor to retroactively apply a new, severe law that did not exist at the time of Shahin’s arrest. He has twice been “released” on bail, and then immediately rearrested. Dozens of other non-American foreigners have been treated in a similar vein.
Although various charges have been filed against Shahin, no resolution of any of them has taken place. Some cases have even been dismissed on the eve of the scheduled trial, just when the accused was prepared to present his defense to the claims against him. Shahin has had over 200 court hearings, yet only 17 of them lasted longer than three minutes; the longest was over in a mere 40 minutes.
The U.S. government has failed to support Shahin strongly and effectively. The State Department has sent several formal Diplomatic Notes expressing concerns about Shahin’s treatment but they remain unanswered. His case has been raised with UAE officials by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit in January 2011 and by other American diplomats, but to no effect. The State Department has yet to make a public statement about Shahin’s predicament, however. This is in marked contrast to the case of three American hikers who strayed into Iran, or that of a Soviet-born seafood merchant and naturalized American who was released from Russian jail after Mrs. Clinton made a direct appeal to her Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov. Paradoxically, the U.S. government has taken far keener interest in the legal problems of two foreigners—Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia and Liu Xiaobo in China—than in the ongoing predicament of one of its citizens.
Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoums control an ostensibly U.S.-friendly, economically weakened and politically fragile Middle Eastern autocracy which needs robust encouragement from Washington to stop victimization of foreigners—including Americans—by manipulating judicial processes. America cannot and should not try to effect regime changes in the Middle East. Washington has all kinds of political and economic tools at its disposal, however, to make their governments more observant of the rule of law. An unambiguous public expression of concern by the Secretary of State about the specific case of Zack Shahin would be a commendable first step.