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World & Nation

American on hunger strike in Egyptian prison is ‘in a very dangerous situation’

Mustafa Kassem, a New York City cabbie is being held in Eqypt since 2013.
Moustafa Kassem of New York has been in prison in Egypt since 2013. He was sentenced to 15 years over a protest he says he had nothing to do with.
(Handout)

The family of an American citizen on a hunger strike in an Egyptian prison is urging Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo to use his upcoming Cairo trip to press for the man’s release before it’s too late.

Moustafa Kassem, a 53-year-old auto parts dealer from Long Island, N.Y., has been consuming only liquids since he was sentenced Sept. 8 — in a mass trial with more than 700 defendants — to 15 years in prison over a protest he says he had nothing to do with.

The Egyptian American dual citizen, who has been in prison since showing his U.S. passport during a security crackdown in 2013, has decided that “either he goes out free or he goes out in a box,” said his brother-in-law, Mustafa Ahmed.

Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had raised Kassem’s case with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi before the sentencing. With the clock now ticking on Kassem’s health, his family and legal team are urgently looking to Pompeo to push harder for Kassem’s freedom when he visits Egypt this month.

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“He has been losing weight and now his hair is falling out from the lack of nutrition,” said Kassem’s U.S.-based lawyer, Praveen Madhiraju. “Even the prison doctors say that he has passed the point where his hunger strike will seriously affect his health.”

Kassem’s sister in New York said his family attempted to talk him out of the strike. “We tried to persuade him to eat, but he refused,” said Eman Kassem. He’s determined that if authorities “are not going to release him, then he’s going to stay like that until, God forbid, he just dies,” she said.

Ahmed alleges that prison officials are endangering Kassem, who has Type 2 diabetes, by allowing him only fruit juices and not vegetable juices in an attempt to pressure him to end the hunger strike.

Kassem was arrested Aug. 14, 2013, after security forces broke up a protesters camp in Rabaa al Adawiya Square. The protesters were supporting the country’s first democratically elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, who had been overthrown by the army six weeks earlier with popular support.

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Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 817 people were killed when security forces raided the camp.

Kassem maintained that he was never part of the protest. He had been in Egypt to visit family and had gone to a shopping mall two miles from the square to change currency before flying back to the U.S., said his brother-in-law, who was with him at the time. When the men returned to their car more than an hour later, they found that the chaos had spread.

When the pair were asked for identification, Kassem handed over his U.S. passport; army officers then beat him and arrested him, according to Ahmed.

Kassem was tried alongside hundreds, predominantly supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, in a high-profile case that Amnesty International called “a grotesque parody of justice.” Seventy-five of the 739 defendants, including senior leaders of the group, were given the death penalty.

Kassem’s legal team is continuing its efforts to get him released, said his lawyer Madhiraju.

“His appeal is pending, but that could take months if not years to work itsway through the legal system. Moustafa probably does not have that long. We’ve also sent a communication through the U.N. special procedures to try and get additional outside attention on his case,” Madhiraju said, referring to the United Nations’ system employing human rights experts.

Kassem applied more than a year ago to renounce his Egyptian citizenship, on the advice of his legal team and the State Department, but his request has yet to be granted, his brother-in-law said.

Another Egyptian American prisoner, Mohamed Soltan, was deported to the U.S. in 2015 after renouncing his Egyptian citizenship; a presidential decree, issued the year before, allows for foreign nationals accused of or convicted of crimes to be deported.

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The U.S. government has increased its engagement with Egypt over Kassem in recent months but hasn’t used the leverage it has at its disposal, said Madhiraju.

The day before Kassem was sentenced, the State Department notified Congress that Pompeo had signed a national security waiver to release $1.2 billion in military aid to Egypt. The department said that it had “serious concerns about the human rights situation in Egypt” but that cooperation with the country was crucial to U.S. national security.

President Trump hosted Sisi in the White House in 2017, saying the leader had done a “fantastic job”; in April, Trump congratulated Sisi on winning a landslide election that many critics considered a sham.

“My sense is that under the Trump administration the U.S. government has consistently raised Kassem’s case but that the administration is unwilling to threaten the overall bilateral relationship if Kassem is not released,” said Andrew Miller, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy and former director for Egypt military issues at the National Security Council from 2014 to 2017.

“With Kassem now on hunger strike,” he said, “his case has become more urgent and will hopefully attract more attention from both the administration and Congress.”

Miller said he expected Pompeo to use his Cairo visit to directly raise Kassem’s plight with Sisi. “It is important for the administration to continue broaching his status with the Egyptian government because a failure to do so would signal that the U.S. government is not actually that interested in his fate,” he said.

In response to questions about whether Pompeo would bring up Kassem’s case in his Cairo visit, a State Department representative said: “We are deeply concerned.... He’s a U.S. citizen. His case has been raised repeatedly with the Egyptian government.”

Kassem is aware of Pompeo’s upcoming trip, his sister said, and despite his deteriorating health, the father of two retains hope of being freed.

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But, Eman Kassem said, “he’s in a very dangerous situation.”

Islam is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.


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