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 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.”