The family of John Hamen of Chesapeake, Virginia, has filed a federal lawsuit against the governments of Syria and Iran, seeking $319 million in damages for his torture and murder by Iran-backed Houthi insurgents in Yemen.
Stars and Stripes reports that Hamen, a 20-year Army veteran and father of seven children, was taken prisoner by the Houthis shortly after arriving in Yemen as a State Department contractor last year. He was in the war-torn country to provide security upgrades for a former Sheraton hotel that had been converted into a diplomatic transit facility.
The Houthis accused Hamen and another prisoner, fellow contractor Mark McAlister, of being spies, but the lawsuit contends they were taken as hostages to force Saudi Arabia to cease its air campaign against the insurgency in Yemen, possibly with an eye toward using them in a prisoner exchange.
When Hamen died in November, his captors took his body to a local hospital, from which it was returned to U.S. custody. The Houthis claimed he died mysteriously in the room where he was held, but an autopsy found evidence of asphyxiation and torture, including “sizable lacerations on his head, fractured right ribs and many abrasions and contusions.”
According to a December 2015 article from The Intercept, the Houthis have also claimed Hamen died after using a fake illness to get himself taken to the hospital and then staging a violent escape attempt.
McAlister, who survived captivity, said he suffered “inhumane conditions” after he was separated from Hamen, spending his days locked in a small prison cell with “no light, and a hole in the floor for a toilet.” He was forced to wear the same clothes for six months and received such minimal food and water that his ribs and backbone were clearly visible upon his release.
According to his own $350 million lawsuit, McAlister was “repeatedly interrogated, threatened, intimidated and psychologically and physically abused, deprived, and manipulated.”
He attributed his survival and return home — just in time for one of his children to graduate college — to miracles from God.
The lawsuits cite United Nations sources to establish Iranian and Syrian support for the Houthis, including money, weapons, and military training.
“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,” said the suit filed by the Hamen family.
The family has also asked for $2.1 million in compensation from the United Nations, which judged it “safe to bring an American into Yemen, despite significant indications to the contrary.”
The odds of compelling Iran or Syria to respect a judgment from American courts are understood to be low by all involved, but lawyers expressed some optimism about seizing Iranian or Syrian assets in the U.S. for compensation or receiving payment from the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.