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U.S. lawmakers urge Egypt’s Sissi to release prisoners

October 18, 2020
In The News

Egypt's authoritarian regime has jailed thousands of political opponents, human rights activists and pro-democracy lawyers, often on flimsy or trumped-up charges. That has triggered widespread condemnation, yet the jailings have continued.

Now congressional Democrats are signaling to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi that human rights abuses will not be tolerated if Joe Biden wins the presidency next month.

In a letter to be sent on Monday, 56 lawmakers detail several cases of what they say is unjust imprisonment and raise concerns of covid-19 spreading in Egypt’s jails. They urge Sissi to release those “unjustly detained for exercising their fundamental human rights.”

“These are people who should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” the lawmakers say in the letter provided to The Washington Post. The letter is signed by 55 Democrats and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).

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Trump once called Sissi his “favorite dictator.” His administration has been mostly silent, at least publicly, about abuses under Sissi’s rule.

“We are not here to lecture,” he said during a 2017 meeting with Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

Human rights activists say the approach emboldened Sissi to increase his oppression.

A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment on the letter on Sunday.

“I do think there is a clear indication that when the administration hopefully changes that there is going to be a very different approach to foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), whose office helped spearhead the letter. “It means that our relationship with Egypt is going be reexamined from a human rights lens, that human rights again will be prioritized.”

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The immediate trigger for the letter, Khanna said, was Egypt’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists and perceived opponents in recent weeks. More than 900 have been arrested since Sept. 20 following small anti-Sissi protests scattered around the country, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.

The demonstrations, which were quickly suppressed by Egyptian security forces, were driven in part by economic woes, frustrations over the coronavirus pandemic and government efforts to fine residents or demolish homes in poor areas to allow more development. The government has also continued to systematically target LGBT people, human rights activists say.

Sissi has said he honors human rights by ensuring “safety and stability” and providing for the basic needs of Egyptians.

The lawmakers name more than 20 activists, lawyers, political opponents and journalists they say have been arbitrarily jailed. The list includes Ramy Shaath, a political activist held for more than year in pretrial detention, and Ramy Kamel, a Coptic Christian activist.

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They note that several U.S. citizens have been jailed and call for the release of the brother of a Pennsylvania teacher. Reem Mohamed Desouky was released in May and returned to the United States, but her brother remains incarcerated since he went to visit her in prison.

They also call for a fair public trial or the release of Khaled Hassan, an Egyptian-American limousine driver from New York imprisoned since January 2018 on charges he joined an Islamic State affiliate. He denies the allegations.

Several relatives of Mohamed Soltan, a former prisoner and activist now based in Northern Virginia, also remain in jail. Supporters say they were arrested in an apparent effort to pressure Soltan into dropping a lawsuit he filed against a senior Egyptian official whom he accused of playing a role in his imprisonment and torture.

“Hostage-taking is illegal and unacceptable under any circumstances,” the lawmakers write.

The lawmakers say they are “appalled” by the deaths of Egyptian filmmaker Shady Habash and U.S. citizen Mustafa Kassem in prison. Kassem, a diabetic, died in January of apparent heart failure after spending more than six years in prison.

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The lawmakers urge the Sissi government to release prisoners “before their wrongful imprisonment becomes a death sentence due to the coronavirus pandemic.” They noted that a well-known journalist, Mohamed Monir, contracted the virus in pretrial detention and later died at a Cairo hospital.

“It is clear that the extreme overcrowding, poor hygiene and lack of access to adequate health care in the Egyptian prison system endanger the health and lives of all detainees,” the lawmakers say. “That risk is compounded now that new reports of covid-19 cases among prison workers and detainees have emerged.”

Human rights activists welcomed the letter as a victory of sorts.

“The relentless advocacy of human rights groups in the past few years is paying off, and members are listening,” said Soltan, who runs the Freedom Initiative, a prisoner’s advocacy group. “There is a growing sense that the bilateral relationship needs a reassessment, especially as Sissi’s regime grows more resistant to pressure on the deteriorating human rights conditions.”

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The letter, he said, sets the tone for the next Congress “to champion individual political prisoner’s cases, and the improvement of the dismal human rights situation in Egypt.”

Khanna described the letter as a “significant first step.” He likened it to congressional efforts to apply pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its involvement in the war in Yemen. That also began with letters and escalated into resolutions, laws and restrictions on arms sales and other U.S. support.

The lawmaker did not rule out cutting or freezing the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid Egypt receives annually — a stick previous administrations have used as leverage to press for democratic reforms.

“This should be a clear warning to the Egyptian government that they need to change their ways,” Khanna said. “It’s not intended to be punitive as a first step. But if there continues to be no progress, then Congress will have to look at all of the options.”