2022 VLW Article

Original article available online through The Virginian-Pilot.

A federal judge has ruled that Iran is liable for supporting rebels in Yemen who kidnapped a Chesapeake contractor, held him hostage for weeks and tortured him before he was brutally murdered in 2015, leaving behind a wife and seven children.

John Hamen was one of two American contractors taken by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels at Sanaa International Airport. They were on their way to work at a former Sheraton Hotel the State Department was renovating for its personnel. At the time it was being used by the United Nations after the U.S. abandoned its embassy in the war-torn nation.

Hamen was an Army veteran there to provide security while Mark McAlister was a quality control manager on the construction project. Then men were taken to an unspecified prison and Hamen was strangled to death about 16 days later, while McAlister was released for an undisclosed ransom amount about six months later, court records show.

U.S. District Judge Randoph Moss Washington ruled earlier this month that the Hamen and McAlister families should be paid by Iran more than $252 million in compensatory and punitive damages, although they likely will only receive a fraction of that through a fund set up by Congress for people who were injured as a result of an act of international terrorism by a state sponsor of terrorism.

Through an attorney, the Hamen family declined to comment. But court records detail some of the lasting impact the loss of a devoted family man with four special needs children has had on them over the years.

“I am haunted by memories of identifying John’s body, imagining the violent manner in which he died, and by the gaping hole left in my everyday life by the loss of my best friend, my husband and my (children’s) dad,” Jennifer Hamen wrote.

“My children have often asked me if we are safe and if the terrorists will come to kill us too. Some of my youngest are still afraid to go outside. My twin girls will likely never again have a birthday where they vividly remember what it felt like to learn about John’s murder.”

McAlister also is haunted by his experiences.

In a telephone interview, he said he’s experienced post traumatic stress disorder since he returned and has suffered from anxiety and depression. But the devout Christian also said he’s realized that each day he’s alive is a blessing.

Since his return, McAlister has spoken to multiple churches about his time in captivity, how he resisted efforts to convert him to Islam so he’d be released earlier, and how his faith sustained him through his darkest times.

He’s thought long and hard about what happened and now believes God wants him to use it to spread the Gospel.

“This story is not about Mark McAlister. It’s about Jesus Christ,” he said. “I believe his intention is for me to share it with the world.”

He likes to note that Hamen — who tried to help him escape — was heroic and lovingly talked about his family. McAlister is now writing a book about their experience and said his publisher thinks it may even be turned into a movie one day.

McAlister said he’s felt driven to service since his return and has spoken to a United Nations panel. Soon he will relay his experiences at the FBI Academy in Quantico.

Now, he said, he’s considering using a portion of the judgment award to help fund a run for U.S. Senate, although it’s unclear how much either family will actually receive.

“The only way we would collect the full amount is if we found assets that were known or attributable to the Islamic Republic of Iran in a location that would allow us to collect them,” said Kevin Hoffman, a Virginia Beach attorney representing the families.

“So the far more likely scenario, as far as how these families will be compensated, is something called the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.”

Money for that fund comes from forfeiture proceeds, penalties and fines related to civil and criminal cases involving prohibited transactions with state sponsors of terrorism.

The fund was established by Congress in 2015 and has paid or allocated more than $2.1 billion to victims from incidents such as the USS Cole bombing and the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, according to the Department of Justice.

But the fund only addresses compensatory damages, not punitive ones. Of the $252 million the Hamen and McAlister families were awarded, only $84 million is in compensatory damages. And the fund sets a cap on how much a family can be paid at $35 million. The fund is also limited by how much money is in it and the number of unpaid claims.

Hoffman said over the life of the fund, which is set to expire in 2026, families likely won’t receive more than 30 percent of what they’re awarded.

Still, the judgment shows the families there is some accountability for Iran, Hoffman said.

“Obviously, they’re happy to see some compensation for lost wages and loss of a loved one,” he said. “But also, they’re participating in a process here that I think is important as the international community continues to stand up to Iran and say, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t spread violence around the world like this.’ ”

Hoffman noted that the judge’s order can also increase political pressure. In the wake of the ruling, U.S. Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and James Inhofe of Oklahoma issued a statement saying that it showed Iran bears responsibility for “Houthi brutality against civilians in Yemen and their efforts to destabilize the region.”

“The Houthis’ torture and murder of an American civilian in their custody, and the Iranian regime’s support for terrorism and torture, are reprehensible behaviors consistent with outlaws from the civilized world,” the statement says.

Hoffman noted that if diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran ever thaw and Iran wants to do business here, it will have to be held financially accountable.

“They would be forced, at that point, to the answer to the Hamen family and the McAlister family for what they did,” he said. “Because they can’t just bring oil tankers over here without getting attached with the hundreds of billions of dollars that American citizens have judgments against them at this point. So while it may seem like a little bit of a fanciful idea that we could collect on this judgment now or that it would have any impact on the Iranians right now, it does, in the grand scheme of things, it makes a difference politically, economically, and obviously makes a difference to the families too.”

Original article available online through Courthouse News Service.

Three Americans who were taken hostage and tortured in Iraq claim in a federal complaint that Iran and prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gave material support to their abductors.

Russell Frost, Waiel el-Maadawy and Amr Mohamed brought their complaint Tuesday just over a year after their abduction. The Americans say they had been working in Iraq on a government contract to train Iraqi special forces when they were grabbed on Jan. 15, 2016, outside a translator’s apartment in Dora, a neighborhood of southeastern Baghdad.

The men initially thought they had been taken be Sunnis aligned with the Islamic State group, but el-Maadawy noticed an image of al-Sadr on one of his captor’s cellphones.

Al-Sadr led the Shiite Mahdi Army after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which has been closely linked to the sectarian violence that plagued the country in its wake.

Since the U.S. has sided with al-Sadr-aligned militia groups in the fight against the Islamic State, this gave the men confidence that they might survive the ordeal.

Frost, el-Maadawy and Mohamed eventually learned that they had been abducted by Saraya al-Salam, a militia they say al-Sadr founded and Iran funds.

Lawsuits against Iran for providing material support to terror groups are fairly common, but the men’s filing in Washington marks perhaps the first time anyone has sued al-Sadr.

“We felt like he should be responsible for organizing and instructing the groups that took these guys captive just as much as Iran is,” Kevin Hoffman, an attorney for the former captives, said in an interview.

Hoffman’s clients say they were held incommunicado for 31 days, blindfolded at a compound in Sadr City, in violation of numerous international laws.

“The hostage takers kicked the legs out from underneath their hostages, forcing them to kneel before the mural of Muqtada al-Sadr, taped dirty rags over their eyes, bound their hands and feet, and taped rags over their mouths so tightly that the men could barely breathe,” the complaint states.

“Every day for the next three weeks, they underwent psychological and physical torture,” the lawsuit continues.

The three Americans said they slept in freezing cold, asbestos-laden cells and “learned to urinate in empty water bottles in order to avoid the beating they would receive whenever they asked to use a bathroom.”

“Furthermore, the men discovered evidence of brain matter, body tissue, and other human remains throughout the area where they were being kept,” the complaint continues.

Hoffman, an attorney with the firm Singer Davis in Virginia Beach, noted that two of his clients were able to listen to and converse with their captors because they speak Arabic fluently.

“The guards bragged to Waiel and Amr about their Iranian military training and the time they had spent with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” the complaint states. “They also told Waiel about how their financial resources, weapons, and equipment came directly from Iran.”

Hoffman could not say for sure if his client spoke the Iraqi dialect of Arabic.

“Their job was to train Iraqi special forces while they were over there, and so I would imagine they spoke the dialect on a regular basis,” he said.

According to the complaint, the State Department became aware as early as 2013 that Iran had plans to use “an obscure Islamist group and its regional proxies” to increase kidnapping operations against Americans.

The men claim that an anonymous State Department official had knowledge that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had received intelligence the week before their kidnapping that “an Iranian-backed Shia militia group wanted to seize American personnel.”

That threat was allegedly never communicated, however, to the trio.

The agency is not a defendant to the complaint, but the men say this same  State Department official failed to warn the men because he had been optimistic that negotiations surrounding the Iranian nuclear deal would persuade Iran to restrain the militia.

Hoffman offered no comment on whether he has plans to take legal action against the U.S. government, saying only that he is investigating every possible avenue on behalf of his clients.

Upon their release, the three Americans were forced to thank al-Sadr in a video filmed in front of a large portrait of him.

“The men were also told to warn the United States that the Shia militias were prepared to resist if America tried to invade Iraq again,” the complaint states.

On July 17 – one day after the men’s release – al-Sadr said on his website that his militias would target U.S. individuals.

“This stance was re-affirmed in a televised interview with Muqtada al-Sadr’s official spokesman who stated ‘(w)e are thirst [sic] for Americans’ blood,’” the complaint says.

Hoffman said his clients are doing well as they recover from the experience.

“All three of them are exceedingly resilient guys,” Hoffman said. “They have a long history of public service and they’re not really dissuaded from that.”

Still, the men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are undergoing medical treatment for lingering injuries.

“For instance the way they were bound for extended periods of time caused nerve damage in some of their limbs,” Hoffman said.

“They are doing their best to move on and they are recovering but there’s no doubt that they’re going to be affected by this physically and emotionally and mentally for a long time,” he added.

Neither the Iraqi embassy or the Iranian interest section of the Pakistani embassy in Washington responded to an emailed request for comment about the lawsuit.

Frost, el-Maadawy and Mohamed are seeking punitive damages for their confinement, and pain and suffering – including torture. The men had been working in Iraq for Blue Light LLC, a subcontractor of General Dynamics.

Original article available online through The Virginian-Pilot.

Federal prosecutors will not attempt to retry former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, on corruption charges, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Thursday.

Other than formal court action, the announcement brings the McDonnell legal epic to an end.

Bob McDonnell’s sister, whose name also is Maureen McDonnell, said by phone Thursday that the family wanted to thank the many supporters who helped them get through the case, and is grateful it’s over.

“We just found out. … It was just – we were really ecstatic about the dismissal,” she said. “It’s been a long 3½-year ordeal for our family. We never lost hope that Bob would be vindicated.”

In a statement released by his New York public relations company, Bob McDonnell said, in part: “I have become grateful for this experience of suffering, having used it to examine deeply all aspects of my life, and my role in the circumstances that led to this painful time for my beloved family and Commonwealth. I am thankful to God for teaching me new lessons about His grace, mercy, and providence.”

Bill Burck, a lawyer for his wife Maureen McDonnell, said in an email statement: “We thank the Department of Justice for the care with which they reviewed the case. We are thrilled and thankful that Maureen can now move on with her life.”

A jury convicted the McDonnells in 2014 of multiple counts of corruption, and Bob McDonnell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won. The case was sent back to an appellate court for a decision on whether McDonnell could be retried following the Supreme Court’s ruling in June that jurors were not properly instructed on federal bribery law and may have convicted him in error.

Federal prosecutors asked for an extension of their Aug. 29 deadline to decide whether to retry McDonnell. According to a Washington Post report, they recommended to the Department of Justice in Washington that he be retried.

The news is a huge victory for the McDonnells, whose indictments and convictions led to changes in state law related to gifts. They were found guilty of taking official action for businessman Jonnie Williams, who was seeking state support for a dietary supplement.

U.S. Attorney Dana Boente for Virginia’s Eastern District issued a three-sentence news release that said:

“Today the United States moved to dismiss the charges against Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen McDonnell.

“After carefully considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision and the principles of federal prosecution, we have made the decision not to pursue the case further.

“The department thanks the trial team and its investigative partners for their outstanding work on this case.”

Bob McDonnell has insisted that while he made mistakes when he and his wife accepted more than $170,000 in swanky gifts and off-the-books loans from Williams, he took no official action in return and did not break the law.

He took the stand in his own defense during his approximately five-week trial in Richmond in 2014, as his attorneys presented evidence that his relationship with his wife was on the verge of collapse. Legal experts later criticized that defense strategy.

A judge sentenced McDonnell to two years in prison and his wife to a year and a day. They remained free on appeal.

McDonnell, a former prosecutor and lawmaker in Virginia Beach who served as state attorney general before his election as governor in 2009, was previously considered as someone whose GOP political career would extend beyond his four-year term. But the January 2014 indictment and prosecution cut that short and replaced it with images of McDonnell wearing a Rolex watch provided by Williams and driving Williams’ Ferrari.

Williams was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony against the McDonnells.

McDonnell bolstered his appellate filings with briefs of support from political and business leaders, including former state and federal attorneys general who argued he had committed no crime and that federal bribery law was too broad.

Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who succeeded McDonnell, said in June that McDonnell should not be retried.

Jeff McWaters, a friend of McDonnell’s in Virginia Beach and a former state lawmaker, said he would have been shocked if the Justice Department had moved forward with a new trial.

“Everybody is just very, very, very pleased,” he said. The McDonnells “have been vindicated completely by the United States Supreme Court.”

McWaters also said the federal justice system – with prosecutors who leak information and are “willing to ruin people’s lives” – needs analysis.

Randy Singer, another lawyer for Maureen McDonnell, said in an email that she is “serving with some non-profits, re-planting her roots in the Hampton Roads community, and cherishing her time with her family, including her four grandchildren. She will be forever grateful for this day, a day that marks a fresh start for both Governor and Mrs. McDonnell, and a day where they can shift their focus from the legal battle that has consumed them to giving back to the Commonwealth that has meant so much to them.”

Bob McDonnell has started a consulting business with his sister.

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.”