Original article available online through The Virginian-Pilot and through Stars and Stripes.
Houthi rebels tortured and killed a Chesapeake man in Yemen last year after detaining and accusing him and another American contractor of being spies after they arrived in the war-torn country on a United Nations plane, according to a federal lawsuit by the men’s families.
The complaint filed this month in Washington accuses the Syrian and Iranian governments of sponsoring terrorism by providing material support to the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group.
The court document provides the first detailed account of John Hamen’s capture and death, which first was made public in November when his wife posted on Facebook that the Army veteran and father of seven had died in captivity within weeks of arriving in the Middle Eastern country as a State Department contractor.
At the time, the Houthis still held the other contractor and the State Department and United Nations were saying little about why the men were arrested at the Sanaa airport Oct. 20 and what happened to them. The other contractor – Mark McAlister of Greenfield, Tenn. – was released into U.S. custody in April.
The lawsuit contends that Hamen and McAlister were imprisoned to compel Saudi Arabia to stop bombing Yemen or to use the men as a negotiating tactic to secure the release of other combatants. The lawsuit says all efforts to secure Hamen’s release through hostage negotiations were “fruitless.”
The Houthis took Hamen’s body to a local hospital Nov. 6, then transferred it to the U.S. embassy in Oman where he was identified by his tattoos, the lawsuit says. State Department officials told Hamen’s wife the Houthis found her husband dead in his room.
But an autopsy performed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware concluded the cause of death was asphyxia and the manner of death was homicide, the lawsuit says. The autopsy noted that Hamen had sizable lacerations on his head, fractured right ribs and many abrasions and contusions.
“The primary evidence of torture is from John Hamen’s autopsy,” Randy Singer, a Virginia Beach attorney representing the Hamen and McAlister families, said in an email. “Although Mark McAlister did not witness the physical torture of John, since they were separated soon after they were taken hostage, his testimony of the conditions, and of what he does know about John’s captivity, is consistent with the autopsy report.”
The lawsuit says their captors separated McAlister and Hamen within hours after they were detained. The Houthis extensively searched the equipment and computers of both men looking for evidence of espionage, but found none, according to Singer.
McAlister was kept in inhumane conditions for the duration of his captivity, with no contact with anyone other than his captors who interrogated him for hours each night, the lawsuit says. He was locked in a 12-by-9½-foot concrete cell with no light and a hole in the floor for a toilet. The Houthis allowed McAlister to go outside to the prison yard three times during his captivity – the only times he saw sunlight.
The lawsuit says McAlister was forced to wear the same clothes for six months, use the bathroom without toilet paper and subsist on a bare-minimum amount of food and water. While confined, McAlister lost so much weight his ribs and backbone were clearly visible, the lawsuit says.
“He was repeatedly interrogated, threatened, intimidated and psychologically and physically abused, deprived, and manipulated,” the lawsuit says.
McAlister and his family seek $319 million in damages. Hamen’s family seeks more than $350 million.
Syria and Iran – which do not have embassies in the United States – have not responded to the lawsuit.
“Frankly, we don’t expect either country to honor the judgment from a US court voluntarily,” Singer said in his email.
If the court issues a judgment for the families, they can be paid from the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund. Singer said his legal team also would search for assets or money traceable to Iran or Syria that the U.S. government could seize.
The lawsuit cites a confidential 2015 U.N. report that says Iran provided military support to Houthis in Yemen through arms transfers and brought thousands of Houthi soldiers into military camps in southern Syria to gain combat and weapons experience.
“Iran and Syria support the Houthis’ military activities with the intention of weakening American allies in the Middle East, including the internationally recognized government of Yemen and its close ally Saudi Arabia,” the lawsuit says. “As such, Defendants’ provision of material military and economic support to the Houthis is intentional, wanton, and willful, with the understanding that violence against Americans such as John Hamen is an expected and welcomed result of such support.”
Hamen and McAlister’s employer had a contract to maintain a former hotel that had been turned into a diplomatic transit facility adjacent to the U.S. embassy, which was in use by the United Nations.
The U.S. suspended its embassy operations in Yemen on Feb. 11, 2015, because of deteriorating security conditions. The Houthis recently had overthrown the internationally recognized government, which led to a civil war. The United Nations was allowed to use the U.S. facility as a local headquarters.
Despite the evacuation of U.S. personnel, the State Department kept its contract with Tampa, Fla.-based Advanced C4 Solutions to retrofit the former Sheraton Hotel to improve security and communications systems. Hamen’s job entailed identifying potential security risks throughout the facility and implementing strategies to mitigate them, Singer said. McAlister was a general contractor in charge of renovations.
AC4S’s biggest customer is the Defense Department, although it also provides services to the State Department in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Haiti, according to its website. AC4S hired Hamen in July and he traveled to Djibouti in east Africa in October, where he boarded the United Nations aircraft to nearby Yemen.
Singer said Hamen’s family also has requested $2.1 million in compensation from the United Nations.
“This request was based on the fact that John Hamen was instructed to enter a dangerous situation in Yemen to provide enhanced security for United Nations personnel, that he entered Yemen via a United Nations flight, and that the United Nations, in conjunction with the United States and AC4S, made the assessment that it was safe to bring an American into Yemen despite significant indications to the contrary,” Singer said.
The United Nations has not responded to the request, Singer said.
Hamen served in the Army for more than two decades and deployed to Iraq before retiring in 2012. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
McAlister previously had worked in the Middle East for private paramilitary contractors. He was released April 29 and arrived home in Tennessee in May, just in time to see one of his three children graduate from the University of Tennessee at Martin. The crowd welcomed him with a standing ovation.
“Because of the circumstances, I really didn’t think I was going to make it. As a matter of fact, I kind of decided not to even hope for it,” McAlister told WBBJ-TV at the time. “I tried to take my mind off of it but again, God made two miracles appear and I’m here today.”