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UAE paid $10m to settle US torture case, according to leaked emails

Khaled al-Hassen, a naturalised US citizen, alleged that he was tortured by, among others, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan
Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyen, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, during a visit to London in 2017 (AFP)

The UAE bought the silence of an American arms dealer who was allegedly tortured by Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, during the 1980s, according to leaked emails obtained by Middle East Eye.

Khaled al-Hassen, a businessman and naturalised US citizen, alleged that he was abducted, taken to a secret location, tortured and forced to sign a false confession while working in the United Arab Emirates.

Among the torturers, the suit alleged, were bin Zayed, his brother and president of the UAE, Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and General Saeed Hilal Abdullah al-Darmaki, at one time the minister for interior affairs.

The 20 emails seen by Middle East Eye, which cover the period from 10 May 2010 to 6 March 2014, reveal correspondence between Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the US, and Paul Hastings, a Washington legal firm hired to defend the three men.

In 2013, Hassen and his lawyers agreed a settlement of $10m, to be delivered to five separate accounts.

Allegations of torture

Hamilton Loeb, a partner at Paul Washington, emailed Otaiba on 2 July 2010, to explain that Hassen was opposing the defence team’s Motion to Dismiss the suit.

In his email Loeb enlarges on some of the background to some of the allegations made by Hassen.

Hassen was hired circa 1981 by Emirate royals to start a marketing firm, the email reports.

The company represented big US companies including Beech Aircraft, ITT, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Bell Helicopters as they “competed for contracts with French, British, and Italian companies represented by the Defendants”.

At stake were lucrative deals in the defence sector as the UAE, flush with oil revenues, began to arm itself with high-tech weaponry.

“Hassen also says there was conflict between Sheikh Zayed and the father of Khaled/Shaya, Sheikh Ahmed, ‘arising out of the transfer of land without compensation owned by Ahmed to the Saudis’.” 

Loeb also reports that Hassen said he was “wrongly accused of ‘engaging in misdeeds involving contracts with the UAE to purchase French Mirage jets’”; and that the defendants believed he was a “CIA operative and, during torture, demanded he provide a list of all CIA operatives in the UAE”.

In the same email, Loeb repeats Hassen’s allegations that he was “abducted in Jan. 1984, kept in a secret prison (not part of the UAE police or judicial system), ‘beaten daily’ by the general ‘and by Sheikh Mohammed and those acting on their behalf’. Bin Zayed, known as MBZ, was a young officer in the Emirati air force at the time.

In an email of 7 May 2010 to Otaiba, Loeb says, quoting Hassen’s suit, that he was subjected to sleep deprivation, withdrawal of air conditioning in his cell, handcuffed and dragged, held upside down, forced to ingest “strange tasting liquids” and suffered abuse of his genitals.

Hassen was allegedly told, Loeb says, that if he ever talked about what had happened to him “you will never see your family again”. He also claimed that he was threatened at gunpoint.

As a next step, Loeb asks in the email: “Any information to show Hassen is a gold-digger? A tool of internal opponents of current regime?”

Strategy to keep story out of media

The US government, at the instigation of Hassen’s family and their member of Congress, made enquiries about him.

But, according to Loeb in an email of 2 July 2010 to the UAE ambassador, “the defendants lied to the USG (US government) that he was not detained in the UAE”. After nine months, Hassen was allowed to meet with a consular representative.

Hassen had secured State Department cables that showed that only after initially denying it, did they acknowledge he was being held by a “special state security arm… …under personal supervision of ‘highest levels’ of government”. Loeb, on 2 July 2010, describes the cables as “somewhat ugly”.

Much of the emails between the lawyers and representatives of the UAE government concerns the defence team’s efforts to claim diplomatic immunity and have the suit dismissed.

Richard Mintz, managing director of The Harbour Group, a Washington-based public affairs and communications consultancy, tells Loeb, Otaiba and others in 26 July 2011 that “our legal strategy is to contest venue and standing, rather than the substance of the suit and we may not want to introduce facts into our defense at this time”.

There is no mention of a strategy to challenge Hassen’s allegations: rather, the overriding concern was to keep the story out of the public eye.

The case received little media coverage with the exception of an article in the Daily Journal, a legal publication. The article is no longer available on the site but can be found on the website of Hassen’s lawyer, Roger W Clark.

Published in August 2010, it notes: “A federal judge is weighing whether to green-light a human rights lawsuit with sensitive geopolitical implications that seeks civil monetary damages from three members of the royal family in Abu Dhabi - including the emir, a key US ally in the Middle East.”

It says that the law firm Clark, Goldberg & Madruga in Century City, filed the suit on behalf of Hassen in February 2009.

His attorneys told the court, the Journal reported, that the alleged torture and detention took place over a 22-month period.

It said his attorneys explained there were two reasons for his decision to file a suit. “The first, after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, Al Hassan gradually decided he was safer in the US from assassins from the Middle East, his attorneys said. Second, he recently obtained US State Department memos that detailed government-led efforts to locate him in the United Arab Emirates and find out the reason for his imprisonment.”

The 'Dick Cheney' agreement

The defendants’ lawyers were successful in securing immunity for Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan as president of the UAE.

However, as the case dragged on, the defence team became increasingly concerned that the trial judge would not accept the argument of diplomatic immunity for Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and al-Darmaki.

As the email from Loeb on 2 July 2010 notes, there is a concern that Hassen’s lawyers will shop the story to the press – “We would be [shopping it], if we were in their shoes.”

And on 23 July 2012, Loeb tells the ambassador of a proposal that would “involve a quick negotiation with the State Department on a bilateral agreement that limits the forms of legal process on a narrow category of senior officials.”

This deal would have allowed immunity for Mohammed bin Zayed, the deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, along with that for his US counterpart, the undersecretary of defence, for any action brought against either of them

“We are calling it the 'Dick Cheney' agreement,” Loeb writes, “since, from the US perspective, it would have the benefit of protecting officials such as the former vice president from being served in foreign lawsuits in similar circumstances.”

The email concludes, “we have not yet tested the temperature at State for this proposal.” The response is not known – but the fact that a settlement was reached with Hassen suggests it was unsuccessful.

When it came to payment, one account was blocked. An email from an embassy employee to the ambassador on 9 May 2013 recounts the effort to unblock it:  “HSBC called me back yesterday saying that all transfer were well done except one in the amount of $1.3 million which the bank is putting on hold pending receiving information about Hassen; including full name, permanent address, citizenship, date and place of birth and the reason for the transfer.”

On 25 February 2014, Loeb wrote to the ambassador: “I am told the 2014 settlement payments to Hassen and Roger Clark (Hassen’s lawyer) are due to be released from the blocked account… Our LA team has run several searches and has not found any recent press related to Khaled al-Hassen. Before the next payment in the settlement goes out, they have asked me to check to see if you have any information on press leaks that should hold up the payment. Anything?”

To which Obaid replied on 6 March: “I’m not aware of anything.”

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