Amer­i­can held in Egypt had pleaded for U.S. help


CAIRO — As an Amer­i­can im­pris­oned in Egypt, Mustafa Kassem thought his govern­ment would res­cue him from what he saw as his un­just in­car­cer­a­tion. The 54year-old auto parts dealer viewed his blue U.S. pass­port as a bul­let­proof vest that made him un­touch­able, es­pe­cially in the hands of a govern­ment that re­ceives bil­lions in Amer­i­can aid, his rel­a­tives have said.

By the time he died Mon­day of ap­par­ent heart fail­ure, af­ter more than six years in prison with neg­li­gent med­i­cal care, Kassem’s faith in Amer­i­can power had bro­ken down. In­flu­en­tial U.S. politi­cians called for his re­lease but never ap­plied any pres­sure, such as the threat of sanc­tions on Egypt’s au­to­cratic leader, Ab­del Fatah al-sissi, a key U.S. ally.

Fi­nally, Kassem saw no choice

Septem­ber 2018. In a let­ter smug­gled out of prison at the time, he begged Pres­i­dent Trump to help him, not­ing they were fel­low New York­ers. “I am putting my life in your hands,” wrote the fa­ther of two small chil­dren.

His death raises ques­tions about the abil­ity of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to help as many as a half-dozen Amer­i­cans still in­side Egyp­tian jails, most of them for flimsy rea­sons, ac­cord­ing to hu­man rights ac­tivists — not to men­tion the thou­sands of other po­lit­i­cal de­tainees ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sim­i­larly poor conditions. There are more than 300 pris­on­ers cur­rently on hunger strike.

On Tues­day, Egypt’s chief pros­e­cu­tor or­dered an au­topsy, say­ing it had opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Kassem’s death.

His fatal in­car­cer­a­tion is the lat­est sign of the ex­tent to which the Sissi govern­ment has been em­bold­ened by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy of keep­ing silent, at least pub­licly, about Egypt’s hu­man rights abuses, crit­ics say.

Since Trump’s visit to the Mid­dle East in May 2017, when he made clear that hu­man rights would not be a pri­or­ity for his ad­min­is­tra­tion in its re­la­tion­ships with re­gional al­lies, abuses have es­ca­lated.

“This sad story re­flects very poorly on both Egypt and the United States,” tweeted Michael Hanna, a Mid­dle East ex­pert at the Cen­tury Foun­da­tion. “And the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship re­mains dys­func­tional and di­rec­tion­less.”

Sissi has tight­ened his grip on the coun­try, putting in place the most au­thor­i­tar­ian regime in Egypt’s mod­ern his­tory, hu­man rights ac­tivists say. In an ef­fort to si­lence dis­sent and free speech, the govern­ment has ar­rested tens of thou­sands of ac­tivists, jour­nal­ists and po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. More than 500 web­sites deemed crit­i­cal of the govern­ment have been shut down. Ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings and forced dis­ap­pear­ances of ac­tivists are on­go­ing, as is tor­ture, hu­man rights groups say.

Even as the abuses have mul­ti­plied, Trump has con­tin­ued to em­brace Sissi, even declar­ing him to be his “fa­vorite dic­ta­tor.” He in­vited Sissi to the White House, an honor that Trump’s pre­de­ces­sor, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, never ex­tended, largely be­cause of Egypt’s hu­man rights record. In fact, pre­vi­ous U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tions of­ten used the $1.3 bil­lion in U.S. mil­i­tary aid that Egypt re­ceives an­nu­ally as lever­age to press for demo­cratic changes and free­doms.

“Like 1000s of the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, he should never have been de­tained,” Sen. Chris

Mur­phy (D-conn.) tweeted Mon­day. He urged Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo to “re­mind Egypt that mil­i­tary aid is legally tied to re­leas­ing pris­on­ers, in­clud­ing at least 6 US ci­ti­zens.”

The White House did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment Tues­day.

David Schenker, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for Near East­ern af­fairs, told reporters Mon­day that Kassem’s death was “need­less, tragic and avoid­able.”

“I will con­tinue to raise our se­ri­ous con­cerns about hu­man rights and Amer­i­cans de­tained in Egypt at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity,” he said.

Kassem, of Beth­page, N.Y., was vis­it­ing rel­a­tives in his na­tive Cairo in the sum­mer of 2013. He was ar­rested on Aug. 14, 2013, the day Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties stormed a sit-in by sup­port­ers of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood party in Cairo’s Rabaa al-adawiya Square, killing as many as 1,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to hu­man rights groups.

Kassem ap­pears to have been an un­in­tended tar­get: He was ar­rested at a nearby shop­ping cen­ter, where he had gone to ex­change money shortly be­fore his re­turn to the United States, ac­cord­ing to the Free­dom Ini­tia­tive, a group that ad­vo­cates for Egyp­tian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers.

“Af­ter show­ing his U.S. pass­port, the sol­diers beat and de­tained him, later trans­fer­ring him to law en­force­ment of­fi­cials who con­tin­ued this harsh treat­ment,” Pre­trial Rights In­ter­na­tional, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that rep­re­sented Kassem, said Mon­day. Not­ing that he was “a di­a­betic with a heart con­di­tion,” the group said that “prison of­fi­cials lim­ited ac­cess to nec­es­sary med­i­ca­tions and med­i­cal care for the en­tirety of his de­ten­tion.” It added that Kassem “re­mained in pre­trial de­ten­tion for over five years.”

Sen. John Mccain (R-ariz.), who died in Au­gust 2018, had asked Trump to urge Egypt to re­lease Kassem. In Jan­uary 2018, af­ter a visit to Cairo, Vice Pres­i­dent Pence told reporters that he had spo­ken with Sissi about Kassem’s im­pris­on­ment and that Sissi had “as­sured” him “he would give that very se­ri­ous at­ten­tion.”

Nev­er­the­less, Kassem was con­victed and sen­tenced to 15 years in jail in a mass trial later in 2018, ac­cused along with 738 other de­fen­dants of try­ing to over­throw the Sissi govern­ment. The pro­ceed­ings, said hu­man rights ac­tivists, vi­o­lated all stan­dards of due and fair pro­cesses. No ev­i­dence di­rectly im­pli­cat­ing Kassem was ever pre­sented, they said.

On the day of his sen­tenc­ing, Kassem be­gan a “liq­uid-only hunger strike,” said Pre­trial Rights In­ter­na­tional. On Thurs­day, the group said, Kassem “ceased tak­ing liq­uids and was shortly there­after trans­ferred to a hos­pi­tal, where he passed away” late Mon­day af­ter­noon.

Se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials were aware of Kassem’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing state. In June, the Work­ing Group of Egypt, a bi­par­ti­san group of diplo­mats and for­eign af­fairs ex­perts, sent a let­ter to Pom­peo, high­light­ing the poor med­i­cal care pro­vided by Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties to po­lit­i­cal de­tainees. The group wrote that Kassem was “in im­mi­nent dan­ger of death.”

The death of for­mer pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Morsi in June was also a wake-up call for those hop­ing to as­sist Kassem and other po­lit­i­cal de­tainees.

Morsi, Egypt’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected head of state, was ousted in a 2013 mil­i­tary coup en­gi­neered by Sissi. He was held for six years in prison un­der ex­ceed­ingly harsh conditions, hu­man rights ac­tivists and his rel­a­tives said, in­clud­ing the de­nial of med­i­cal treat­ment for his di­a­betes and other ill­nesses. The Egyp­tian govern­ment de­nied the al­le­ga­tions.

In July, Pom­peo re­sponded to the let­ter from the Work­ing Group, say­ing that “the safety and well-be­ing of U.S. ci­ti­zens over­seas, in­clud­ing those de­tained, has been a top pri­or­ity for me.”

He noted that two U.S. ci­ti­zens de­tained by Egypt had been re­leased dur­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. In 2017, aid worker Aya Hi­jazi was freed af­ter Trump pressed Sissi. And the fol­low­ing year, Ahmed Etiwy, a univer­sity stu­dent, was let go af­ter Pence urged his re­lease.

But other Amer­i­cans re­main in­car­cer­ated on what ac­tivists de­scribe as du­bi­ous charges. Khaled Has­san, a limou­sine driver from New York, has been im­pris­oned since Jan­uary 2018 on charges that he joined an Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate. Has­san has de­nied the al­le­ga­tions, say­ing he was in Egypt to visit rel­a­tives when he was picked up by se­cu­rity agents.

While he was in cus­tody, se­cu­rity forces al­legedly beat Has­san, de­liv­ered elec­tric shocks and raped him twice, Hu­man Rights Watch said. In July, Has­san at­tempted sui­cide in­side Cairo’s no­to­ri­ous Tora prison, the group said.

Last year, Penn­syl­va­nia teacher Reem Mo­hamed De­souky was jailed af­ter she landed in Cairo to visit rel­a­tives. Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties have charged De­souky with ad­min­is­ter­ing so­cial me­dia ac­counts deemed crit­i­cal of the govern­ment.


The Tora prison in Cairo in Novem­ber. Mustafa Kassem, 54, a hunger-strik­ing Amer­i­can be­ing held in the fa­cil­ity, died Mon­day of ap­par­ent heart fail­ure, af­ter more than six years of in­car­cer­a­tion.


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