The opacity of oppressive regimes obscures truth and harsh realities.
But last month a video implicating Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, brother of the President of the United Arab Emirates, in the torture of an Afghani grain dealer was smuggled out of the country by a Houston businessman. Supposedly the dealer had shorted Sheikh Issa out of US$5,000 worth of grain. For his alleged sin, he was taken to a remote area of the desert, hog tied, tortured with whips and wooden planks with protruding nails and electronic cattle prods, salted, and run over repeatedly by the sheikh in his Mercedes SUV. The 45-minute-long video and the story made the rounds of the mainstream media. Perhaps it even made some of us more aware of what we are supporting in the region and the heavy price of our overreliance on oil.
A few weeks after the reports about the sheikh's abuses made news, a quieter but no less sensational story made regional headlines. A Henderson, Nevada family is suing government operatives in Jordan for US$200 million for allegedly murdering 35-year-old American national Mr. Firas Zaidan while he was in police custody in May 2007. Mr. Zaidan had arranged a short-term apartment rental while he was vacationing in the Red Sea port city of Aqaba. A dispute arose about the payment. Mr. Zaidan claimed he had paid the landlord's son; the landlord said otherwise. Mr. Zaidan was hauled off to prison and allegedly tortured to death within a matter of days.
As sorry as I am for Mr. Zaidan and his family, this story doesn't surprise me in the least. I had my own attempted rip offs over Jordanian housing/shelter while I was living there. Three times, in fact. I was never arrested (nor should I have been), but on two occasions I had to report it to the authorities, and on one of those to the Ministry of Tourism, too. Both times it was settled in my favor, and in one case (in which I was double charged for a month's stay at a B&B) the owner was ordered to reimburse me within an hour of the hearing. The third time I recognized the signs of trouble and simply walked away from the situation before committing to it. So it's very easy for me to believe that Mr. Zaidan was viewed by his landlord as an ATM machine.
As for the treatment of prisoners in Jordan, I'd heard the stories. No one in Jordan aspires to deal with the Mukhabarat (intelligence services) or the police.
I was once invited to a birthday party by an expat. One of her family members is married to a Jordanian man. To my surprise, at one point during the evening, he plopped down next to me on the sofa and told me he'd spent time in prison (for what, I was afraid to ask). He specifically wanted to know whether I had contacts at Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Embassy. . .anywhere he could safely reveal how he was treated in prison and how he personally saw others treated in prison. He sought to bear witness. And then he spent most of the evening telling me about the atrocities. Electric wires up the penis and in the anus. Cords tied around the testicles. Beatings. Bones snapped like twigs just for the hell of it. Hangings (upside down, naked, shackled, for long periods). Soles of feet whipped raw by wires, then dipped in salt water or wiped with acid. Sexual improprieties. Insufficient food. Cramped, filthy conditions. Lack of warmth in the winter (desert winters get extremely cold). He spent hours telling me about it. Whatever he'd done wrong, if anything, to become a "guest of the government," it was clear to me the punishment didn't comply with the many international human rights agreements and covenants to which Jordan is a party.
But back to the sad case of Mr. Zaidan. Because his family is suing regime operatives in Jordan from the U.S., a paper trail exists. The lawsuit was filed on May 11, 2009 in the family's district court. It is rare for the details of a given case of alleged torture to see the light of day. But the contents of the suit square with what Human Rights Watch has been reporting for yonks.
We are peering through the keyhole. Now if someone can just find the damned key, turn the lock, and throw open the door maybe we will finally earn some transparency and accountability from our supposed allies.
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