January 16, 2020
The Working Group on Egypt is deeply saddened by the January 13 death of U.S. citizen Mustafa Kassem in a Cairo hospital, after a long hunger strike to protest his unjust imprisonment and inhumane detention conditions. Mr. Kassem had been incarcerated in Egypt since August 2013; he was serving a baseless and politically motivated 15-year sentence after being convicted in a mass trial. We hold the Government of Egypt responsible for this entirely avoidable death, which represents yet another stain on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government and on U.S.-Egyptian relations.
Mr. Kassem’s death at the hands of a purported U.S. partner whose leader has been praised by the Trump administration also represents a failure of U.S. policy towards Egypt. Changes are needed immediately in order to save the lives of at least six more U.S. citizens currently imprisoned in Egypt on politicized charges, as well as those of thousands of Egyptian detainees:
- The U.S. government should immediately cut at least $185 million in security assistance for Egypt as a penalty for that government’s failure to respond to repeated, high-level entreaties to release Mr. Kassem.
- The U.S. government should further make clear that the same amount will be cut for each of the American detainees who is not released and returned to the United States within 30 days of the initial deduction.
- The U.S. government should apply Global Magnitsky sanctions to any and all Egyptian government official responsible for, or who has acted as an agent for someone responsible for, the abuse of Mr. Kassem. This would mean visa bans and/or revocations for all eligible officials as well as economic sanctions revoking property and preventing them from using the international banking system.
- Moreover, the U.S. government should support publicly and privately the repeated calls from Egyptian human rights groups for a UN inquiry into detention and prison conditions in the country as well as International Committee of the Red Cross access to all prisons.
Following the shocking death in detention of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who also was denied appropriate medical care and suffered other abuses in prison, we wrote to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in June 2019 to urge U.S. action in response to the abysmal conditions of thousands of political detainees in Egypt, including Mr. Kassem and several other U.S. citizens. Secretary Pompeo responded that he shared our concerns, and that the Trump administration would “continue to engage with Egyptian authorities at the highest levels on these issues.” The failure to release Mr. Kassem, despite high-level U.S. officials raising his case repeatedly, suggests that al-Sisi believes he can act with impunity.
A resolute response to Mr. Kassem’s death is essential and expected, given the assertion by senior officials that freeing wrongly detained Americans abroad is a foreign policy priority. If it does not do so in this case, the administration will have demonstrated that President Trump’s stated commitment to defend Americans abroad is selective and does not apply to all foreign governments.
Following Kassem’s death, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) issued a statement holding al-Sisi “personally responsible” and urged the White House and Congress to “recognize that we cannot continue to reward such reprehensible conduct” by a purported U.S. partner. We in the Working Group agree; past failures to hold Egypt accountable for transgressions against U.S. interests, values, and persons have emboldened al-Sisi’s government to disregard U.S. concerns. Tragically, this pattern of impunity has now culminated in the death of an innocent man, father, and husband. The fates of at least six more American citizens, along with several U.S. legal permanent residents, who remain unjustly imprisoned and mistreated in detention in Egypt, hang in the balance.
Mostafa Kassem, from New York, was on a family visit to Egypt in August 2013 when he was arbitrarily arrested, beaten, and then charged–without cause–with “illegal protesting to overthrow the government.” Based on an eyewitness account from his brother-in-law, it appears that Mr. Kassem was arrested after he presented his U.S. passport, suggesting that he was possibly targeted because of his American nationality. After nearly five years in pre-trial detention, during which he was reportedly tortured and denied medical care, Mr. Kassem was sentenced in September 2018 to 15 years in prison, following a mass trial with more than 700 defendants. The court never provided any individualized evidence in support of the charges against him. Immediately after this conviction Mr. Kassem began a liquid-only hunger strike. According to his family the prison authorities denied him medical care for this and other pre-existing health conditions, including diabetes and heart problems. Mr. Kassem’s health continued to deteriorate severely and, after he ceased taking liquids, on January 9 he was transferred to a local hospital where he died.
Michele Dunne (co-chair)
Robert Kagan (co-chair)
* The Working Group on Egypt is a bipartisan group of foreign affairs experts formed in 2010.