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Peering Through the Keyhole
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The Late Mr. Firas Zaidan

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.

9 Comment count
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Vicious circle

It is a vicious circle, Ellen. Societies look for convenient allies; no one is really interested in human rights, especially if it is the right of the citizen without much clout. The idea is to find scapegoats...even if justice prevails, it will be to give the 'impression' of justice so that the world can go back to its business of propping up regimes it can work around.

The transparency won't work out because these are all inside deals taking place. Only governments understand the games of power play.

People like you can bring more attention to it and one hopes at least some of us will understand these issues better.


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Farzana, you are right, of

Farzana, you are right, of course.  Any country's allies are primarily allies of self interest and convenience.  There is no altruism involved.  In exchange for turning a blind eye to the abuses in the UAE, we get easy, reliable access to oil.  The same opacity and tolerance of gross prison abuse in Jordan made it a country receptive to renditions in the "war on terror."  The regimes can cry crocodile tears and promise to do better when they are caught out.  Our government plays along, knowing probably nothing will change, because we need the oil and somewhere to send and torture those bad a$$es who are plotting our demise.  It's all a charade. . .I understand that.

But, still, it's not right.  We can do better, can't we?  Shouldn't we?

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ATM machines and the key hole


This is incredible. The detail is just horrifying.

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Yeah, the video especially

Yeah, the video especially is so graphic and medieval (except for the flashy Mercedes SUV).  I should've warned everyone.

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Cruelty and torture exist in

Cruelty and torture exist in all societies, but some see them as a deviant behavior, and some others as a hidden, but institutionalized practice among the people who hold the power. I think your idea of "peeking through the keyhole" says a lot about how those things should be treated. It´s no use argueing in the open because those people will make it seem that YOU are the crazy and wrong one. When the images leak, on the other hand,there´s nothing that can be said that´ll erase them. As Farzana said, the games of power play among governments are complicated and dirty (I added this last adjective)ones.

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You've pretty much got it

You've pretty much got it figured out, Luciana. 

It seems to me there is some baseline level of depravity that is part and parcel of the human condition.  It's not bound by time, culture, race, religion, political boundaries, or any other variables.  What varies is how acceptable it is (or isn't), what becomes of the perps, and whether justice is served for the victims.

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Ellen, this is an eye opener

Ellen, this is an eye opener for me. Here I am in Ireland infused with anger over the church and the government and the way they are handling this latest scandal with the institution issue and now this. I wonder what has become of man? Underneath surely there has to be an ounce of humanity left. After reading your post I doubt it really. I feel saddened and feel too that I have to be thankful for my own little world, not that I don't care about the outside world, but really when it comes down to it, if you can rear and love people within your own four walls well, isn't that what spreads itself out, seeps further out and reaches into other places. I mean the love, the love must matter, eventually at least? Mp

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Mary, thanks for coming over

Mary, thanks for coming over and visiting.  I know sometimes (OK, most of the time), my blog is a big, damned downer and occasionally difficult to wade through.  But I also know from my blog stats that there is a surprising number of readers and lurkers, so there appears to be an interest.

I'm disgusted with the church's crimes and all the other injustices that happen in our countries, too.  The difference, though--and to me it is material--is that usually there is rule of law, due process, recourse, remedies, a free press to act as watchdog and report, a society that frowns deeply at these things, an industry of professionals (e.g., lawyers, therapists, physicians, social workers) to support the victims.  Yeah, the process is messy.  It isn't perfect.  It can take a long time and, for some crimes, there simply is no justice.  But it's better than nothing and superior to most.

This is not the case under dictatorial regimes, no matter how nice a face their (usually Western) PR firms try to put on them.  If Emiratis know about their sheikh's misdeeds, it is only thanks to the Houstonian with a conscience who courageously smuggled out the video and the Internet and other outside media that disseminated it.  Without such concrete evidence, they'd have denied, denied, denied any rumors.  That Afghani grain dealer is nothing to them.  There is a human pecking order in the region, and Afghanis, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and Sri Lankans are among the people at the bottom.  Most of them are treated appallingly.  So, without that video, that poor Afghani man was defenseless.  Probably even doomed. 

It's possible I missed something, but I never came upon a news article about Mr. Zaidan's death in the Jordanian media or even in the Jordanian blogosphere, which seems to be a bit freer.  Maybe, because his heritage seems to be Arab, those Jordanian prison guards didn't realize he was an American citizen, so in their minds they could do with him what they wanted.  No transparency, no accountability. . .that's how it goes.  Well, this time, they picked on the wrong man.

And, so, knowing what I know, knowing that so many people lack a voice, I feel a responsibility to use mine when I can.  Most of us in the Red Room were born lucky, and we don't even realize it.

Mary, I like to think it is just a small segment of the global population that is utterly depraved.  Unfortunately, sometimes it seems as though they have the upper hand.  I felt that after 9/11, and I still feel it.  We gentler souls need to do what we can--puny or grand--to spread compassion and love and stand up to the bullies of this world when they overstep.  Otherwise, it seems to me, the bad a$$es win.  And I don't want to live in that world.

[Dismounts high horse, kisses it to spread the love, flashes the peace sign for added effect, and walks off into the sunset.]

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Peace sign back!

Peace sign back!