EXCLUSIVE: Detained American’s family blasts Biden administration: ‘Complete indifference’

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The family of Zack Shahin, the longest-serving American prisoner overseas, says the Biden administration has blown off their appeals to bring home the seriously ill business executive.


The administration’s apathy is particularly galling, they say, because Mr. Shahin is being held in a United Arab Emirates prison. 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 was detained for nine months.


“All of a sudden you have the U.S. and UAE team up to get [Brittney Griner] out and my dad’s just kind of pushed to the side. I don’t really have any words for it. I was just blown away and a little alarmed,” Mr. Shahin’s son, Remy Shahin, told The Washington Times.

Mr. Shahin’s family says they are very happy for Ms. Griner but “perplexed” that the State Department did not push to secure his 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 an October meeting.


President Biden last week thanked the UAE for its help in negotiating Ms. Griner’s freedom.


It was Mr. Biden’s second prisoner swap. He also secured the release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who had been arrested and detained in Moscow.


For Mr. Shahin’s family, it is the latest in a long line of frustrations since he was jailed in Dubai, the UAE’s largest city, in March 2008. He was arrested by UAE authorities and accused of various financial crimes.


His family says the charges are fraudulent and insist he’s innocent. 

In the meantime, he’s missed birthdays, graduations, weddings, and other life milestones.


Now family members are left wondering if they will ever see him alive again. Mr. Shahin, 57, is currently being treated in a UAE hospital for a host of illnesses ranging from an infection in his lungs to rotting flesh and skin sores caused by more than 15 years of living in poor conditions at the Dubai jail, his family says. He’s 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 use the UAE to broker a deal to bring Griner home. What about the sick man 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 the UAE embassy in Washington did not respond to multiple requests for comment.


Mr. Shahin’s family says they are not surprised by the inaction. They’ve been ignored by multiple administrations, and requests for updates on diplomatic efforts from the State Department have been met with tepid responses.


State Department officials have even asked the family to resubmit their mercy letters in Arabic, and even often soften their content so as to not offend the UAE royal family, according to emails obtained by The Washington Times. Suggested edits 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 requesting changes,” Remy Shahin said.


In an email dated Sept. 21, a State Department employee says they were talking to prison authorities about the possibility of Mr. Shahin’s family visiting him in prison. That’s the last the family has heard about a prison visit, they said.


Separate mercy letters written by Ramy Shahin and his mother to the UAE royal family were submitted to the State Department on Nov. 23 and 24. After nearly two weeks of delays, so the letters could be translated into Arabic and toned down, they were finally passed along by the State Department on Dec. 8, just days before Ms. Griner was released.


Ms. Dagher doesn’t believe the timing was a coincidence.

“They are putting [the letters] on the side, especially during the Griner deal,” she said. “I mean the timing, the overlapping cannot be just a coincidence that they stall all this while they use the UAE to broker a deal.”


Mr. Shahin, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon, worked for Pepsico and in banking in the UAE. He later accepted a position as CEO of a development company in Dubai.


On March 23, 2008, he was arrested on charges of bribery, embezzlement, and other financial crimes.


No formal charges were filed for 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 expressed concern about his health. He fled to Yemen, where he was arrested months later and deported back to the UAE.


A UAE court convicted Mr. Shahin of embezzlement in 2014 and sentenced him to 53 years in jail. His family says the charges are false and several organizations have championed his cause.


It is the longest sentence of any American in a foreign country.


Diane Foley, who founded the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation after her son was killed in 2014 by the Islamic State in Syria, has advocated for Mr. Shahin’s release.


“Given his condition, it was especially disheartening to learn about high-level talks with the UAE without any action on Zack’s case. We understand these situations can be complicated but we believe that the U.S. government should be strongly advocating with our close ally UAE to free our U.S. citizen, Zack, who is gravely ill.” Ms. Foley said.


Earlier this month, the Foley Foundation sent a letter to the UAE royal family urging Mr. Shahin’s release.


Detained International, a British organization that provides pro bono legal services to prisoners has also pushed for Mr. Shahin’s release.


Martin Lonergan, a British activist with Detained International who met Mr. Shahin in prison, said there has been “complete indifference” from the Biden administration regarding the case.


“Not only is he wrongfully detained, but Zack’s also suffering inhumane and degrading treatment that is clearly demonstrated by the fact that he’s now in the hospital because his body is rotting,” said Mr. Lonergan said.

 Advocates say Mr. Shahin should be released under the Levinson Act, which bolstered the U.S.’s efforts to support families of Americans wrongfully detained overseas.


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 those detained. That includes sharing intelligence information with families about their loved ones and efforts to free them.


It also authorizes the U.S. to sanction those who are involved with wrongfully detaining Americans overseas.

The legislation also prioritizes those with health issues or held in deteriorating conditions.

Mr. Lonergan said that Mr. Shahin should qualify under the Levinson Act because of his health concerns.


He and Ms. Foley submitted a request to the State Department to advocate for Mr. Shahin under the Levinson Act. It was denied within five days, Mr. Lonergan said — the fastest rejection he’s ever seen.

“Brittney Griner confessed to drug trafficking… and yet she was classified under Levinson in five minutes. But she confessed to a crime and Zack has never confessed to crimes.”

Ms. Griner pled guilty to the drug charges in a Russian court.

For now, Mr. Shahin’s family says they are doing all they can to bring him back to the U.S. before his health worsens.

“I have no idea if my dad will ever make it 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 don’t have any words. All it takes is a phone call, but we keep getting pushed aside.”

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