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November 23, 2017

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Henderson couple sues nation over alleged prison beatings

Family blames prison guards in Jordan; suit seeks $200 million in damages

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Firas Zaidan

A Henderson couple is suing the nation of Jordan over the beating death of their son at the hands of prison guards in the Middle Eastern nation in 2007 -- a case that helped draw international attention to what critics call widespread brutality in Jordan's prisons.

A lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas by Ismail Sbaih and Hanan Sbaih, parents of Firas (Sbaih) Zaidan. Also suing is Zaidan's widow, Barbara Cole, who lives in Pennsylvania.

The suit was filed by attorney Jesse Sbaih, brother of Firas Zaidan. Jesse Sbaih, who has an office in Green Valley, said he's working on the case on a free, or pro-bono, basis; and that any financial damages the family obtains from the lawsuit will be donated to a charity in the name of Firas Zaidan. The suit seeks $200 million in general and punitive damages.

The purpose of the lawsuit is "to deter future such inhumane conduct and make sure that people are not mistreated while vacationing in Jordan," Jesse Sbaih said.

Among Middle Eastern nations, Jordan is viewed as a reliable U.S. ally in the war on terror and in efforts to stabilize Iraq. The nation of 5.86 million people signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and has received more than $5 billion in U.S. aid since the 1950s, the State Department says.

But the Sbaih lawsuit and a 2008 report from Human Rights Watch paint a different picture of a nation where they say prisoners are routinely tortured and where prison authorities are not adequately supervised by the government.

"Torture in Jordan's prison system is widespread even two years after King Abdullah called for reforms to stop it once and for all," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in the 2008 report. "The mechanisms for preventing torture by holding torturers accountable are simply not working."

Human Rights Watch said: "Prison officials say beatings and other ill-treatment are isolated incidents and that a prison reform program initiated in 2006 is improving prison conditions and accountability for abuse. Human Rights Watch's research shows that while the reform program may well be improving the chief areas of its focus -- health services, overcrowding, visitation, and recreation facilities -- impunity for physical abuse remains the norm."

The human rights group noted minimal punishment was given to the guards who had beaten Zaidan to death in Aqaba prison in May 2007: 2 1/2 years in prison.

Jesse Sbaih, along with his parents, is from Virginia. He and his parents relocated to Las Vegas and Henderson during the last decade or so. He recalled that his brother, who was 35 when he died, worked odd jobs and was a "surfer dude."

"He was enjoying life and lived a decent life," Sbaih said, explaining that after vacationing in Jordan his brother had intended to join his wife in the United States.

But, as related in the lawsuit, he got into a dispute over rent at a place he was staying and was arrested. After being charged with disorderly conduct, he was sentenced to six days in prison in the Aqaba Rehabilitation and Correction Center.

The suit indicates Zaidan may have been upset as he was not represented by a lawyer in court and did not have the chance to cross-examine his accuser or to appeal. Still, a Human Rights Watch report says, he was acting normally when he entered the prison.

Human Rights Watch suggests something happened to Zaidan during his first night at the prison, in a holding cell, where he may have been beaten; and that he acted oddly after that when he was moved into a prison wing with other inmates.

"He acted strangely, drinking water from a plastic cup with cigarette butts, cursing others and banging his head against the wall, but ... he had quieted down by the evening," the report says.

"The guards told Zaidan to get dressed, and, when he refused, (guards) al-Amiri and al-Huwaitat swung from the upper bunk bed and hit Zaidan in the face and chest with their boots, before taking him outside," the report says. "After that, prisoners heard Zaidan's screams, apparently from being beaten, from the direction of the shabaka (holding cell)."

"As evidenced by the extremely bloody clothing Firas was wearing at the time he entered the Aqaba Prison that is presently in plaintiffs' possession, while in the shabaka (holding cell), Firas was severely beaten and was caused to bleed from all over his body," the lawsuit charges.

The lawsuit says that based on witness statements and an autopsy report, Zaidan was repeatedly beaten over the next several days with sticks and cables.

Eventually he was taken to a hospital and a physician administered an anti-psychotic medication, but failed to examine Zaidan or treat him for his injuries, the lawsuit says. He was returned to prison and was found dead in a solitary confinement cell by a prisoner on May 10, 2007, the suit says.

"Based on information and belief, Firas was severally beaten and tortured to death by prison guards in order for the guards, who each likely earns less than $1,000 per year, to embezzle several hundred dollars of Firas' money and his credit card," the suit says. "Plaintiffs learned that such credit was used after Firas' death to purchase goods in the city of Amman, a city several hundred miles away from Aqaba."

The lawsuit alleges the government initially blamed the cause of death on an overdose and tried to cover up the true cause so as not to hurt the important tourism industry in the area of Aqaba, but could not explain how he could have obtained drugs to overdose on while he was in prison custody.

The suit goes on to allege that Jordanian officials had been put on notice, months before Zaidan was arrested, that torture was widespread in Jordan's prisons, but failed to act to secure the safety of prisoners.

The suit says officials had been put on notice by the Jan. 5, 2007, "Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment," authored by Manfred Nowak of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on his mission to Jordan in June 2006.

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