Zak Shaheen has rotted – literally rotted – in a Dubai prison for 15 years.
Bright fluorescent lights are always on in the concrete cell the American shares with 60 other prisoners. Noisy air conditioning running 24 hours a day. The air is damp and cold, and it smells like decomposing flesh.
Zack sleeps on a plastic mattress with a dirty blanket and in clothes that have never been washed. Prisoners are rarely allowed out of their cells.
His family maintains his innocence.
But Zack – sick, sleep-deprived, and hungry – lost the will to live years ago.
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“He’s rotten,” Martin Lonergan, a British activist who interviewed Zack in prison, told Fox News. “If you can imagine a guy dying because he’s rotting…they cut pieces of Zack away, and he dies trying to fight off the infection.”
Almost three months ago, Zack’s condition became so serious that he was rushed to a hospital in Dubai where he had several unsuccessful surgeries.
In a last-ditch effort to get Zack home, his family submitted letters of mercy to the State Department on November 23. Al-Shahan went back and forth with the State Department officials for nearly two weeks, going over their letters until they were finally sent to the United Arab Emirates. Emirates Airlines on December 6.
Al-Shaheen did not know this, but the United States was concurrently negotiating the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, which the UAE helped facilitate.
“They completely abandoned us… and pushed us completely to the side,” Ramy Shaheen, Zach’s son, told Fox News. “Maybe we’re not newsworthy enough for them—we’re not famous, we’re just a regular family—and they just left us.”
“They just took him down.”
Zack, of Lebanese descent who moved to Texas when he was five, worked as a Pepsi truck driver in Houston. Eventually, he worked his way up to become an executive in the company.
In 2004, Zak was appointed to the UAE by Mohammed Khalfan bin Kharbash, the country’s finance minister and chairman of Dubai Islamic Bank. He was appointed CEO of the bank-owned real estate development company, Deyaar. Over the next four years, the $5 million private company became a $1.5 billion publicly traded company, and the second largest real estate company listed on the Dubai Stock Exchange.
But when the ruler of Dubai died in 2006, the political fallout ousted Bin Kharbash and Zach’s success hampered, according to his family. He resigned from Diyar in early March 2008.
On March 23, Zack, then 43, was called to an audit meeting. Zak’s family said that State Security kidnapped him there. After 17 days in solitary confinement, he was taken to the police station and arrested on charges of fraud, embezzlement and other financial crimes – crimes his family says are false 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 bail, Zach spent the next nine years in prison before finally being convinced in 2017. He was sentenced to 49 years in prison, which did not include time served.
His family insists he is innocent. The Big Four global accounting firms audited Diar for the years Zak was CEO and found no financial losses or evidence of financial crimes he was accused of committing, according to Shahins.
“My dad is just an ordinary American guy who started working hard to make a name for himself,” Rami told Fox News. “He took this little real estate company and made it what it became and built a lot of what Dubai is famous for. And then they just took it down.”
My father has no hope.
Now at 58, Zack is America’s longest serving white-collar prisoner abroad, according to Determined International, a British organization that provides free legal services to prisoners.
Several organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Detained International, and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, have attempted to raise awareness of Zak’s imprisonment over the years but have not received a response from the US government.
“I will keep fighting until he gets out,” Rami said. “And if I fail, so be it. But I won’t let this pass.”
Zack has a host of health problems, including an infection in his lungs, rotting flesh, and skin sores. Al-Shaheen suspects that his condition is worse than they know because they have not seen his medical records.
Lonergan, a Briton who met Zack while he was in prison, compared a prison to a dungeon.
“It is the place where you are pushed away to be forgotten,” he said.
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Lonergan, who works for Detained International, spent 10 months in prison with Zack starting in 2020. He first noticed the American through the bars of his cell across the hall. Despite the severity of Zack’s physical ailments, Lonergan said his mental health is “much worse.”
“I’ve had conversations with Zack, and there are times when you can see a glimmer of light in his eyes when he talks about his story,” Lonergan said. “Most of what I discovered is from research when I got out.”
“I have never witnessed such injustice in my life,” he added.
Al-Shaheen had some hope after President Biden signed an executive order in July supporting the existing hostage recovery law. It directed US agencies to reach out more to the families of Americans illegally detained abroad and allow their captors to face sanctions.
However, their request to defend Zach under the law, Levinson Law, was denied within five days.
“I think the Biden administration and the State Department should look into our case and treat it with more respect,” Rami told Fox News. “Because we didn’t even get any of that.”
Rami was 14 years old when his father was imprisoned. Now 30, he talks to his dad on the phone every few days.
“My father has no hope,” he said. “It hurts me every time I talk to him because he gave up hope a long time ago. He’s a shell of what he used to be.”
News of his condition prompted Zack’s family to make a final plea for mercy from the UAE royal family.
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“All we want is mercy,” Zak’s sister-in-law, Aida Dagher, told Fox News. “Somebody move, please. Let this guy fly to the Houston Medical Center, near his family, where he can get the rest of his life.”
The State Department has repeatedly asked Al-Shaheen to tone down the rhetoric in the mercy letters, emails provided to Fox News. Two days after the letters were sent, news broke about the UAE’s involvement in Greener’s release.
“My father’s situation was an inconvenience to the United States,” Rami told Fox News. “When they were working with the UAE and Russia to negotiate Brittney Griner’s release, I felt like they thought, ‘Let’s not mention Zack Shaheen while we work on getting her out because it might not go well with them.'”
“In order to push the rhetoric back and sit for days and weeks while the UAE was clearly helping America negotiate the release of Brittney Greener – the department clearly didn’t want to antagonize the UAE through this diplomatic process,” Lonergan said.
The family also said the close relationship between the United States and the United Arab Emirates discouraged the United States more than defending Zack.
A US State Department spokesperson told Fox News that they are in regular contact with Shaheen’s family and will continue to monitor Zack’s condition and “provide all appropriate consular assistance.”
“We have no greater priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas,” the spokesperson said. “We take seriously our commitment to assisting US citizens abroad and are providing all appropriate assistance.”
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After 15 years and three presidential administrations with little to no action, the family still suffers from Zack’s absence every day.
“We are all broken,” Rami said. “I look at my mom, and she’s just hollow…she can’t work.”
He added, “I try to come out on top and act strong for my family and my dad, but I feel like I lost a part of myself when he went out there.”
To see the full interview with Rami, Lonerjan, and Dagher, click here.