After spending 77 months in an Egyptian prison while on pre-trial detention and serving part of his fifteen year sentence, Mustafa Kassem, a 54 year old cancer-survivor and father of two living in New York with dual American-Egyptian citizenship died last Monday in Egypt’s Tora prison.
On August 14th, 2013 the day before he was due to return to New York, while visiting family in Egypt Kassem was arrested along with his cousin by soldiers outside of a shopping center near Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya square, where supporters of the ousted former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi were engaged in a sit-in. His cousin was set free but after Kassem presented his US passport he was detained and beaten.
In 2018, Kassem was tried alongside over 700 co-defendants and charged with protesting the government in a mass trial and sentenced to 15 years in maximum security prison. In objection to the unjust sentence Kassem began an open-ended hunger strike.
Kassem’s is an unfortunate case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a bystander during the dispersal of the sit-in and got swept up with political protestors. Tens of thousands of Egyptians that have been unjustly imprisoned since an unprecedented and harsh crackdown on dissent began in 2013 when Abdel Fatah al-Sisi took office following a coup.
There are an estimated 60,000 political prisons living in inhumane conditions, 677 have been reported dead due to medical negligence. Kassem was the fourth detainee to die in Egyptian custody this month, but unlike others his case was the subject of high-level negotiations between Washington and Cairo. Even Vice President Mike Pence appealed directly to President Sisi on Kassem’s behalf to no avail.
In letters written to President Donald Trump, Kassem pleaded for his release and begged that Trump intervene and save his life, he didn’t want to go on a hunger strike but felt that there was no other way to get his attention.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed his outrage to Sisi on Sunday but empty words won’t bring Kassem back to his wife and kids.
With one phone call President Trump could have demanded the release of Kassem and other US citizens unjustly detained in Egypt, Trump could have withheld a portion of the $1.4 billion aid Egypt receives annually, which is second only to Israel. President Trump could have used an assortment of leverages to demand human rights compliances but as we all know this isn’t a concern for him.
With close friends such as Israel and Saudi Arabia both known for being world leaders when it comes to human rights violations and abuse, it’s no surprise that Trump hasn’t made any efforts to give Sisi a slap on the wrist. Purchasing fighter jets from Russia warrants possible sanctions but the imprisonment and unjust detainment of American citizens doesn’t seem to be much of a concern for Trump.
Democratic Senators Chris Van Hollen and Patrick Leahy are calling on President Trump to “immediately” sanction Egypt over Kassem’s death and for immediate visa restrictions against government officials involved in his detention. The Senators are also requesting that President Trump make a statement declaring Egypt’s treatment of Kassem “a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights” and to impose Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on those responsible for his death. In the letter that the Senators wrote to President Trump they said that Egyptian officials never presented any evidence implicating Kassem because it didn’t exist. Senator Van Hollen even met with President Sisi over the summer to discuss his release, to no avail.
I spoke with Meriam Girgis an Egyptian-American Political Activist in New Jersey about Kassem’s case and how conditions have changed under President Sisi. She said, “Sisi is the worst Egyptian dictator of all time. He is ruthless and has crossed every single red line possible, he doesn’t care if other world leaders are privy to the atrocities being committed under his rule”. I asked how she felt about President Trump calling him his “favorite dictator”, she said it makes her feel sick, Trump essentially gave Sisi the green light to commit more human rights violations and atrocities towards his opponents and silence dissidents with impunity.
Girgis hopes that by raising awareness about Kassem’s case and so many others in his position the American public will understand that our tax dollars are being spent on killing and torturing fellow humans on the other side of the world. Girgis mentioned that Ramy Kamel, a fellow Christian Coptic activist living in Egypt was ironically arrested and charged with being part of a terrorist group, all while he was raising awareness about crimes being committed against the Christian Coptic community in Egypt. He is still in jail and his detainment has been extended yet again, his fate like so many others is entirely in the hands of the corrupt Egyptian government.
Girgis like other political activists closely following cases of unjustly imprisoned Americans and political prisoners in Egypt urges Americans to contact their Senators and voice their concern about what is currently going on under Sisi’s regime. She said that there are 7 more US citizens held in Egyptian prisons right now, more needs to be done so that they do not meet the same fate at Kassem, the regime needs to be held accountable for their crimes against humanity.
President Trump not only could but really should use his leverage to immediately demand that all unjustly detained Americans in Egypt be released, sanction those responsible for human rights violations, withhold billions of dollars of US military aid, hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes against humanity and demand that the International Red Cross be granted access and insight into Egyptian prisons.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.