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Torture tape central to lawsuit against UAE sheikh

  • Story Highlights
  • Former business partner of Sheikh Issa of Abu Dhabi suing royal
  • Bassam Nabulsi's tape shows sheikh severely torturing grain merchant
  • Nabulsi, of Houston, says he himself was tortured in jail, sheikh owes him $80M
  • U.S. senior officials say case is holding up a U.S. nuclear deal with the UAE
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HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- On the tape, Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan appears to burn with rage.

The tape emerged in a federal civil lawsuit filed in Texas by Bassam Nabulsi, a U.S. citizen, against Sheikh Issa.

Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, pictured here, allegedly tortured a business associate on videotape.

Believing he was cheated in a business deal, the member of the United Arab Emirates ruling family was trying to extract a confession from an Afghan grain dealer.

With a private security officer assisting, Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan is seen stuffing sand in the Afghan's mouth. As the grain dealer pleads and whimpers, he is beaten with a nailed board, burned in the genitals with a cigarette lighter, shocked with a cattle prod, and led to believe he would be shot. Salt is poured on his wounds.

In the end, the victim can muster up only weak moans as an SUV is repeatedly driven over him.

The 45 minutes of torture appears on a nearly three-hour-long videotape shot in late 2004 in the desert outside Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf region. It was made at the direction of the sheikh himself. The tape has been viewed by CNN.

Now the tape has surfaced as a piece of evidence in a federal civil suit filed in Houston, Texas, against the sheikh by his former business partner, Bassam Nabulsi.

As media, U.S. governmental and human rights questions and concerns emerged, Abu Dhabi's government on Tuesday issued a statement saying it deplored the contents of the video and plans an immediate and comprehensive review of it.

Nabulsi, a Lebanese-born U.S. citizen living in Houston, says he met Sheikh Issa when the royal came to Houston for medical care in 1994. Video Watch portions of the tape and Nabulsi tell his story »

According to Nabulsi, the men became friends and business partners, and Sheikh Issa eventually recruited Nabulsi to move to Abu Dhabi to work for him.

"We were buddies," said Nabulsi, who met with CNN journalists in Houston. "He gave me his personal vow. He swore to look after my family in case something happened to me."

The sheikh, who holds no official government position, is the half-brother of the country's ruler.

In the lawsuit, Nabulsi says was disturbed by the sheikh's "increasingly bizarre behavior" after the November 2004 death of his father, UAE ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan.

Nabulsi's lawsuit says that Sheikh Issa's father "kept tight control over Sheikh Issa" but after the father's death, he "apparently no longer felt constrained."

Nabulsi claims he confronted his business partner about the Afghan's treatment, telling him that to do such a thing he "must not be a God-fearing person."

Nabulsi says his boldness prompted the sheikh to turn on him.

Later, Nabulsi was arrested on drug charges. Security officers working for the sheikh ransacked his home and demanded the torture video, Nabulsi claimed.

By this point, the tape -- shot by Nabulsi's brother at the order of the sheikh -- had been smuggled out of the country. According to an affidavit, Nabulsi's brother worked for Sheikh Issa as a personal assistant.

In 2005, Nabulsi was arrested, jailed and ultimately convicted on drug charges. And, he said, he was tortured and humiliated by UAE police, who demanded he return the tape.

"It was a lot of humiliation," Nabulsi told CNN. "And I really don't like to talk about it."

Nabulsi was fined and deported.

Darryl Bristow, the sheikh's Houston attorney, argued in court papers that American courts have no jurisdiction over his client. In a statement to CNN, Bristow said Nabulsi is using the videotape of a third party, Nabulsi's brother, to influence the court over a business dispute.

"The public should know that the man behind the camera was Bassam Nabulsi's brother and that Bassam Nabulsi kept the video from the media while his lawyer was asking for money. What do you call that where you come from?" Bristow asked.

Nabulsi's attorney denied wrongdoing.

The Houston case languished in the U.S. court system after it was filed in 2006 but it eventually moved forward when the sheikh's personal assistant was served with court papers last year.

Nabulsi's attorney, Anthony Buzbee, said he has deposed the sheikh, but the deposition is under seal. The case was filed in Houston because the Sheikh Issa-Nabulsi business partnership was formed and focused in Texas and "claims at issue in this case arose out of contacts within Texas."

Nabulsi claims breaches of contract and fiduciary duty. He wants $80 million he says is owed to him from their business relationship. He also wants to be awarded punitive damages for torture, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and malicious prosecution.

Initially, the UAE Interior Ministry said Sheikh Issa "does not hold any official position" in the government and that Nabulsi's lawsuit is "a private dispute."

Asked about the torture allegations, the UAE said it investigated and found "...all rules, policies and procedures were followed correctly by the police department. The review also concluded that the incidents depicted in the videotapes were not part of a pattern of behavior."

The shocking case has made waves recently as news organizations asked about the tape.

U.S. senior officials familiar with the case say the administration is holding off sending a nuclear deal with the United Arab Emirates to Congress for ratification because they fear a fallout from the torture story.

Congress has to ratify the civil nuclear agreement signed in January between the Bush administration and the UAE. Those senior U.S. officials said the agreement was supposed to be sent to the Senate, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held off doing so because of the story's sensitivity.

One American lawmaker, Rep. James McGovern, D-Massachusetts, asked Clinton to investigate and that all "expenditures of funds, training, sales or transfers of equipment or technology, including nuclear" to the UAE be put on hold until the matter is reviewed.

He also wants the United States to deny any visas for travel by Sheikh Issa or his immediate family.

"I think we have an obligation to say we want to step back a bit and look at this a little more closely," said McGovern, co-chairman of the congressional human rights commission. He promised hearings on the issue, probing the case and how the U.S. Embassy in the UAE handled it.

"I am not going to let it go away," McGovern said.

Human Rights Watch, the humanitarian watchdog group, is calling for the United Arab Emirates to "investigate and prosecute" the grain dealer's torture.

With media questions about the tape mounting, Abu Dhabi said on Wednesday it decided to renew its inquiries -- more than four years after the incident.

As for the grain dealer, UAE officials say he survived the ordeal, and said the sheikh and the grain dealer settled the matter privately by agreeing not to bring formal charges against the other.

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How much money was the grain dealer accused of stealing from the sheikh?

"It's nothing," Nabulsi said. "No more than about $5,000."

CNN's Scott Bronstein, Drew Griffin, Stan Grant, Elise Labott, Octavia Nasr, and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.

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