The June 17 death of former president Mohammad Morsi should be a wake-up call to renew international attention to the condition of other Egyptian detainees whose lives are at risk but might still be saved.
Letter from the Working Group on Egypt
June 20, 2019
The Honorable Michael R. Pompeo
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Secretary Pompeo,
We write to ask you to express concern publicly and privately about the abysmal conditions of political detainees in Egypt, as highlighted by the June 17 death of former president Mohammad Morsi. Morsi, aged 67, collapsed in a courtroom and died after six years of detention under exceedingly harsh conditions. Not only was Morsi kept in prolonged total isolation and allowed only three family visits over six years, prison officials denied him medical treatment for diabetes as well as kidney and liver conditions. He and his family protested repeatedly about his deteriorating health (for example, he lapsed into several diabetic comas), and British parliamentarians who investigated warned more than a year ago that Morsi’s mistreatment might well lead to his premature death.
Our purpose in writing is not to lionize former president Morsi; in fact, this group’s cochairs criticized steps he took while in office. Neither Morsi nor the estimated 60,000 other political prisoners—among them Islamist and secular leaders and activists alike–did anything, however, to justify the brutal treatment they have faced since the 2013 military coup.
While Morsi’s treatment was notably cruel, it was not unusual. Today there are thousands of Egyptian political prisoners mistreated this way, and many are in danger of premature death or permanent damage to their health. Ordinary detainees are packed into crowded prison cells without minimum requirements of space or sanitation, while high-profile political detainees like Morsi endure months and even years of solitary confinement.
Egyptian authorities routinely fail to provide medical treatment, whether for pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or illnesses that arise due to poor prison conditions. According to the State Department’s 2018 human rights report, “health care in prisons was inadequate, leading to a large number of prisoner deaths due to possibly treatable natural causes.” Egyptian human rights organizations reported that 245 detainees died in prison due to medical neglect in 2018 alone, with another 650 such deaths since 2013. Among the well-known cases was Gamal Sorour (a prominent Nubian rights activist and dual Egyptian/French citizen, who died in November 2017 after being denied medication and slipping into a diabetic coma) as well as former Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Mehdi Akef (who died in prison in 2017 at age 89).
Harsh conditions of imprisonment compound Egypt’s other massive violations against detainees, including systematic use of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, unfair trial, and torture including sexual abuse. Authorities also have pulled detainees out of prison, killed them in cold blood, and staged their deaths as raids against “terrorist cells”—the fate of more than 450 Egyptian men since 2015 according to a recent investigative report by Reuters.
Morsi’s death should be a wake-up call to renew international attention to the condition of other Egyptian detainees whose lives are at risk but might still be saved:
- American citizen Mustafa Kassem is a diabetic with a heart condition who has been denied proper medical treatment; his family reports he is in imminent danger of death.
- American citizen Khaled Hassan has suffered torture and rape in detention, and been denied needed medication.
- U.S. permanent residents Ola Qaradawi and her husband Hosam Khalaf have suffered physical and psychological ill effects from two years of solitary confinement.
- Strong Egypt party founder and 2012 presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh has suffered at least one heart attack since his detention in February 2018. The party vice president Mohammad al-Qassas also suffers from untreated diabetes and blood pressure issues.
- Former Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan, who tried to run against Sisi for the presidency in 2018, has suffered a life-threatening infection and back problems during his detention.
- Mohamed El-Beltagy, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, has suffered a stroke, kidney failure, and other serious ailments since his arrest in 2013.
- Former national security advisor Essam Haddad has suffered several heart attacks in prison, while his 38-year old son Gehad Haddad, a Brotherhood activist, can no longer walk unassisted due to abuse and enormous weight loss.
- Hisham Geneina, the former top government auditor who exposed military corruption, has been denied surgery and other treatment for facial and leg injuries he suffered in a mob attack believed to have been instigated by the regime.
- Hoda Abdel Moneim, a prominent female human rights attorney, has been denied treatment for a blood clot in the leg.
These are only a few representative cases of well-known Egyptians; there are thousands more.
We ask you, Secretary Pompeo, to speak up publicly and privately about the deplorable conditions for Egyptian detainees and to support specific steps to address them:
- Egyptian human rights groups are requesting that the International Committee of the Red Cross be given access to prisons and issue a report with recommendations for improvement.
- The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for a thorough independent inquiry into the circumstances of Morsi’s death, including the conditions of his detention, a call seconded by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The Trump administration is playing a positive role in supporting the legitimate demands of protestors in Sudan and Algeria, who are struggling for rights against military establishments. It should do the same and more on behalf of political prisoners in Egypt, whose government U.S. taxpayers have supported generously for more than 40 years.
The Working Group on Egypt (a bipartisan group of foreign policy experts formed in 2010)
Michele Dunne (co-chair)
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace*
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
Project on Middle East Democracy
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Human Rights Watch
Robert Kagan (co-chair)
Project on Middle East Democracy
Project on Middle East Democracy
Former president, National Democratic Institute
*Members participate in their individual capacity; institutional affiliations are provided for purpose of identification only.
RESPONSE FROM SECRETARY OF STATE MICHAEL R. POMPEO
July 8, 2019
The Working Group on Egypt
c/o The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1776 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington DC 20036
Dear Ms. Dunne and Mr. Kagan,
Thank you for your letter addressing the death of Mohammad Morsi and conditions in Egyptian prisons.
I share your concerns about reports of poor conditions in Egyptian detention facilities and agree that no person, regardless of citizenship or the allegations against them, should be detained arbitrarily or subject to unfair treatment or abuse. As you note, we have discussed this issue extensively in the Department’s annual County Reports on Human Rights Practices, and I stand by those reports.
The safety and well-being of U.S. citizens overseas, including those detained, has been a top priority for me as Secretary of State, and I have worked—and continue to work—to ensure these detainees are treated humanely and fairly. This has included advocating on behalf of U.S. citizens detained in Egypt with Egyptian senior officials on multiple occasions. Two U.S. citizens formerly detained in Egypt have been released during the Administration’s tenure, and these efforts continue.
I assure you that we will continue to engage with Egyptian authorities at the highest levels on these issues.
Michael R. Pompeo