An American citizen won a rare $10 million torture settlement against three top members of the ruling family in the United Arab Emirates, after State Department cables proved the man had indeed been detained as he had claimed.
The confidential and previously unreported settlement was paid out in May 2013, according to documents extracted from the hotmail account of UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba. The documents were provided to The Intercept either by a hacker or someone who had access to his account.
Settlements for torture victims are extraordinarily rare, making the payout to Los Angeles resident Khaled Hassen that much more surprising.
Hassen’s case was brought in federal court in L.A. against three of the most powerful figures in the Gulf — the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, known in Washington as MBZ, a man particularly close to Otaiba; the emir of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan; and General Saeed Hilal Abdullah al Darmaki.
The case had more than geopolitical hurdles to overcome: it was seeking justice from an abduction all the way back in January of 1984, when Hassen was working for a member of the royal family consulting on weapons contracting. Competition for contracts in the arms-trade industry can often turn violent, as it did in Hassen’s case. At the time, the three defendants were also in the arms trading business, and were rivals of Hassen’s boss as they all fought to rise through the ranks of the UAE power structure.
MBZ personally witnessed some of Hassen’s torture, Hassen claimed.
Hassen, in his suit, claims he was held in a windowless 7 by 10 foot cell until November 1985, beaten, blindfolded for days at a time, with the air conditioner cut off in the summers, causing the temperature to rise to excruciating levels. His feet and legs, he said, were bound together and he was hung upside down for long periods of time; he was fed foul tasting liquids that brought on “severe pain and hallucinations.” All the while, the State Department was working feverishly to locate and visit with him, the cables indicate.
The suit was filed in February 2009, just weeks after the Obama administration took office. In November, the judge warned that the case was going to be dismissed for lack of action, as the defendants, who were in the UAE, had not been served. So Hassen’s attorneys served Otaiba instead, and the judge accepted it.
To overcome the denials of the UAE government, Hassen’s lawyers cited State Department cables that were released in 2006, showing U.S. embassy officials trying to locate Hassan and secure his release. “Special state security arm which claims even it has no jurisdiction over Al-Hassan [sic] admits latter does remain detained in Abu Dhabi under personal supervision of ‘highest levels’ of government…” one cable from July 1984 reads.
One of the UAE’s U.S.-based lawyers, Hamilton Loeb, noted in one email to Otaiba on July 2, 2010, that Hassen had produced nine State Department cables from 1984-1985 “that are somewhat ugly.” In them US embassy reports that after initial denials, UAE authorities confirmed Hassen was being held by a ‘special state security arm…under personal supervision of ‘highest levels’ of government.”
Loeb, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, told Otaiba that the cables made it impossible for the UAE to deny his imprisonment, and gave the case a credibility that they needed to take seriously, especially given the geopolitical implications.
Most cases that old don’t get very far — the statute of limitations on the U.S.’s Torture Victim Protections Act is 10 years — but Hassen argued that the power the men wielded made it reasonable for him to wait. He finally decided to go forward, he reasoned, because the UAE had decided it wanted to be on good terms with the US — a relationship that might be soured if an American citizen were murdered on American soil in retribution for a lawsuit.
Plaintiffs are typically required to exhaust all legal options in the home state of the defendants before bringing suit in the U.S., but Hassen argued that the courts in the UAE have no independence, and are controlled by the very people he is suing.
The judge let it go forward.
Otaiba and the country’s foreign minister worked hard behind the scenes to shield the ruling family from liability, with limited success. U.S. law creates a process to remove a sitting head of state from a lawsuit for diplomatic purposes, and Otaiba successfully lobbied the State Department to request the emir be struck from the case. But Clinton declined to do the same favor for MBZ or al Darmaki.
On January 9, 2011, Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan thanked Clinton and the Department of Justice for granting the emir immunity, but pressed the case of MBZ. As a sign of how seriously the Emirates were taking the case, bin Zayed relayed to Clinton that he wanted to add it to the agenda of her upcoming trip to the Gulf.
Otaiba prepared talking points with a U.S. legal team, according to the emails, relying on a precedent set by Israel, a country that the UAE does not officially recognize, but with which they work in concert on regional issues in Washington. “We held off asserting ‘official acts’ in the initial round, in the belief that the judge would dismiss all claims on other grounds and thereby not require the UAE involve itself further in eliminating the lawsuit. The judge to whom the case was assigned, however, is brand-new on the bench and favorably disposed to claimants like Hassen. Accordingly, the UAE now needs to obtain State intervention to assert official acts immunity. If State does so, it is virtually automatic that the judge will dismiss the claims,” the talking points read.
“This is the same immunity that, for example, the Israelis used successfully to obtain State’s intervention in the Gaza apartment shelling case against Avi Dichter.”
The reasoning didn’t work, and MBZ remained on the case. When she was replaced by John Kerry as secretary of state, Otaiba pushed him as well.
On March 25, 2013, Kerry sent bin Zayed a letter that began: “Your Highness: It was a pleasure seeing you in Abu Dhabi on March 4, and I thank you for your letter regarding the case of Hassen v. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nayhan et al.”
It read in full:
Attorneys from the Department of State’s Office of Legal Adviser recently met with Mr. Hamilton Loeb, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s attorneys, and discussed with him your request that the United States file a suggestion of immunity on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed. The Department will continue to monitor this case closely and continue our communications with Mr. Loeb concerning developments in the litigation.
Kerry, those who worked with him say, always enjoyed his time in the Gulf region meeting with leaders there — the fabulously expensive bottles of wine that are routinely uncorked when the ruling elite dine agree with Kerry’s elite sensibilities. But the wine wasn’t enough to buy MBZ’s way off the Hassen case, and Kerry’s diplomatic brush off seems to have sent UAE leaders scrambling toward a settlement.
By May 2, 2013, just a few weeks after Kerry’s rejection, the deal had been signed and counter-signed, and wiring instructions for a $10 million payout were circulated by Otaiba. The condition: silence in the press.
“The Embassy is not commenting on the emails,” said the Harbour Group’s Richard Mintz an Otaiba representative. The Intercept reached out to the law firm who represented Hassen and a woman there said the firm couldn’t comment on the case and immediately hung up.
In April 2013, the same years as Hassen’s settlement, the UAE government imprisoned Shez Cassim, a US citizen from Minnesota, for producing a satirical video about Dubai youth culture, the beginning of a horrifying odyssey through the country’s prison system. Soon, Otaiba would be fielding calls and emails from the Minnesota congressional delegation on the detention of Cassim, who became a cause celeb for comedians in the U.S., including Will Ferrell and others at Funny Or Die.
“I continue to be shocked that he is still in jail,” Sen. Amy Klubuchar (D-Minn.) wrote in one email to Otaiba on Christmas Day 2013. “I believe your country has reached a place on the world stage where these things matter even if they were acceptable in the past. That is the case I hope you can make.”
Otaiba told Klobuchar he would continue to lobby MBZ — fresh off the $10 million settlement for allegedly overseeing the torture of Hassen — to release Cassim. “I assure you that’s precisely the case I am making and it does have merit,” he assured her. He was released the next month.
In May 2014, Otaiba authorized the release of that year’s payment to Hassen after a search of the media turned up no articles on Hassen’s case.