Former Columbus resident Zack Shahin was thrown into a Dubai prison in 2008, accused of embezzling from a company he ran and other financial crimes.
He’s innocent, he says. But that’s beside the point for now.
Shahin has never been brought to trial. He has attended more than 200 hearings, most of which have lasted less than three minutes, he said in a phone interview with The Dispatch yesterday. He has been granted bail, only to be immediately rearrested.
Shahin wants a resolution to his case. He thinks that will happen if the U.S. Department of State puts public pressure on the government of the United Arab Emirates, where Dubai is located.
To force the issue, Shahin started a hunger strike on May 14. And he and his attorneys began talking publicly for the first time in years about his ordeal. They argue that the United States does not want to confront an ally.
“My government is speaking out about people in other countries, about people in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Shahin said. “(The United States’) relationship with Dubai is more important than the life of an American.”
Shahin has lost 35 pounds during his hunger strike, but his tactic may be working.
Justin Siberell, the U.S consul-general in Dubai, issued a statement yesterday afternoon expressing concern about Shahin’s health and “about whether Mr. Shahin is receiving equal treatment as measured against other defendants accused of financial crimes in the UAE.”
Siberell had visited the prison yesterday before Shahin’s interview with The Dispatch, and he released the statement afterward. The State Department also said that on May 23, an official brought up the issue with the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador in Washington.
“We definitely see this statement as ‘progress,’?” said Jim Jatras, a Washington-based attorney for Shahin, in an email. “But it is far, far from good enough.”
Shahin, 48, was born in Lebanon, and his family migrated to the United States in the late 1970s. He became a U.S. citizen. They settled in Columbus in 1981, when Shahin was a teenager. Shahin attended Ohio Dominican University, Ohio State and the University of Toledo before earning a bachelor’s degree from a Lebanon university.
He worked for PepsiCo in Houston and was assigned to its Dubai operation in 1992. He’s worked in the United Arab Emirates ever since. But both of his children were born in Columbus, and he still owns a condominium on the Northwest Side that he bought with his wife in 1996.
They used to visit regularly. Shahin’s wife and children, 19 and 15, now live in Houston.
Shahin was chief executive of Deyaar Development, a real-estate company, when Dubai authorities began investigating in late 2007. He thinks the investigation was political and meant to target an associate.
Shahin was arrested in 2008 but not formally charged for more than a year — another concern mentioned in the consul-general’s statement yesterday. That initial formal charge accused him of embezzling $100,000.
He said he was able to prove that the money was a bonus, approved by the board of directors. Other charges, which Shahin says are equally false, followed.
The United States government did ask the United Arab Emirates about Shahin on occasion, his representatives said. He tried not to draw attention to himself for fear of what Dubai authorities might do. Shahin has access to a phone, and his family is able to visit twice a year.
But Shahin said he has become frustrated that the United States hasn’t helped more. He’s drawing as much attention to himself as possible now. That’s why he started the hunger strike, he said.
And he’ll only stop “when I am on an airplane leaving UAE air space,” he said.