Zack Shahin has been rotting – literally rotting – in a Dubai jail for 15 years.
In the concrete cell that the American shares with 60 other inmates, bright neon lights are always on. The noisy air conditioning runs 24 hours a day. The air is damp, cold, and smells of rotting flesh.
Zack sleeps on a plastic mattress with a dirty blanket and clothes that have never been washed. Prisoners are rarely released from their cells.
His family maintains his innocence.
But Zack – sick, sleepless and starving – lost the will to live years ago.
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“He’s rotting,” Martin Lonergan, a British activist who met Zack in prison, told Fox News. “If you can imagine a man dying from rotting away… they cut off parts of Zack, and he dies trying to fight the infection.”
Almost three months ago, Zack’s condition got so bad that he was transferred to a hospital in Dubai, where he had several unsuccessful surgeries.
In a last-ditch effort to get Zack home, on November 11, his family filed letters of clemency to the State Department. 23. The Shahins went back and forth with State Department officials for almost two weeks, revising their letters until they were finally sent to the United Arab Emirates on December 1st. 6.
The Shahins didn’t know it, but the US was simultaneously negotiating the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, which the UAE helped facilitate.
“They completely let us down … they completely sidelined us,” Ramy Shahin, Zack’s son, told Fox News. “Maybe we’re not newsworthy enough for them — we’re not famous, we’re just ordinary family — and they just left us.”
“They just picked him up”
Zack, a native Lebanese who moved to Texas when he was five, worked as a Pepsi truck driver in Houston. Eventually he worked his way up to managerial level in the company.
In 2004, Zack was recruited to the UAE by Mohammed Khalfan bin Kharbash, the country’s finance minister and chairman of the Dubai Islamic Bank. He was appointed CEO of a real estate development company owned by the bank, Deyaar. Over the next four years, the $5 million private company grew into a $1.5 billion publicly traded company and became the second largest publicly traded real estate company on the Dubai Stock Exchange.
But when the ruler of Dubai died in 2006, the political fallout engulfed bin Kharbash and disrupted Zack’s success, according to his family. He resigned from Deyaar in early March 2008.
On March 23, Zack, then 43 years old, was called to an auditing meeting. There he was kidnapped by state security, Zack’s family said. After 17 days in solitary confinement, he was taken to the police station and arrested for fraud, embezzlement and other financial crimes – crimes his family believes are wrong and politically motivated.
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His family said he was held for 13 months before formal charges were brought against him. Along with a short-lived release on bail, Zack spent the next nine years in prison before being finally convinced in 2017. He was sentenced to 49 years, which does not include time served.
His family insists he is innocent. The Big Four accounting firms audited Deyaar for the years that Zack was CEO and found no financial losses or evidence of the financial crimes he was accused of, according to the Shahins.
“My dad is just an ordinary American who started working hard to make a name for himself,” Ramy told Fox News. “He took this little real estate company and made it what it became and built so much of what Dubai is known for. And then they just tripped him up.”
“My father has no hope”
Zack, 58, is the longest-serving American employee abroad, according to Detained International, a British organization that provides free legal aid to prisoners.
Several organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Detained International, and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, have tried to raise awareness about Zack’s detention over the years, but received no response from the US government.
“I’ll keep fighting until he comes out,” Ramy said. “And if I fail, then so be it. But I’ll never let that go.”
Zack suffers from a number of health issues, including an infection in his lungs and rotting flesh and sores on his skin. The Shahins suspect his condition is worse than they know, having never seen his medical records.
Lonergan, the Brit who met Zack in prison, compared prison to a dungeon.
“Here you are pushed away to be forgotten,” he said.
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Lonergan, who works for Detained International, spent 10 months incarcerated with Zack as of 2020. He first noticed the American through the bars of his own cell across the hall. Despite the severity of Zack’s physical ailments, Lonergan said his mental health is “much, much worse.”
“I’ve had conversations with Zack, and there are times when you can see a glimmer of light in his eyes as he talks about his story,” Lonergan said. “Most of what I discovered came from research when I got out.”
“I have never seen such injustice in my life,” he added.
The Shahins had some hope after President Biden signed an executive order in July strengthening an existing hostage-taking law. It directed US authorities to communicate more with the families of Americans illegally detained abroad and allow their captors to face sanctions.
However, her application to attorney for Zack under the law, the Levinson Act, was denied within five days.
“I think the Biden administration and the State Department should look at our case and treat it with a little more respect,” Ramy told Fox News. “Because we haven’t even gotten any of that.”
Ramy was 14 when his father was imprisoned. The 30-year-old calls his father every few days.
“My father has no hope,” he said. “It hurts me every time I talk to him because he lost hope a long time ago. He’s just a shell of what he used to be.”
News of his condition prompted Zack’s family to issue a final call for clemency to the UAE royal family.
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“All we want is mercy,” Zack’s sister-in-law, Aida Dagher, told Fox News. “Someone please move. Fly this guy to the medical center in Houston, close to his family, where he can have what’s left of his life.”
The State Department has repeatedly urged the Shahins to tone down the rhetoric in their letters of clemency, emails delivered to the Fox News show. Two days after the letters were sent, news of the UAE’s involvement in Griner’s release broke.
“My father’s situation was an inconvenience to America,” Ramy told Fox News. “When they worked with the UAE and Russia to negotiate Brittney Griner’s release, I have a feeling they were like, ‘Let’s not mention Zack Shahin while we’re working to get her out because it might not be for them could walk right.’”
“Having pushed back the letters and dragged them on for days and weeks while the UAE was apparently helping America negotiate Brittney Griner’s release – it’s evident that the department did not want to upset the UAE during this diplomatic process,” Lonergan said.
The family also said the close relationship between the U.S. and the UAE continues to deter the U.S. from championing Zack.
A State Department spokesman told Fox News that they are in regular contact with the Shahins and will continue to monitor Zack’s case and provide “all reasonable consular assistance.”
“We have no greater priority than the safety of US citizens abroad,” the spokesman said. “We take our commitment to serving U.S. citizens abroad seriously and will provide any reasonable assistance.”
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After 15 years and three presidential administrations with little to no action, the family is still plagued by Zack’s absence every day.
“We’re all broken,” Ramy said. “I look at my mom and she’s just blank … she can’t function.”
“I’m trying to put on a front and act strong for my family and my dad, but I feel like I lost a part of myself when he went in there,” he added.
To watch the full interview with Ramy, Lonergan and Dagher, click here.