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RELEASE: Reps. Khanna, McGovern, Sen. Brown Lead Over 50 Members of Congress Urging Egypt to Free Prisoners of Conscience

October 18, 2020
Press Release

Washington, DC – Today, Rep. Ro Khanna (CA-17), Vice Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-2), Chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) led over 50 of their colleagues in urging Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to release human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and other prisoners of conscience before their unjust imprisonments become death sentences in the face of massive COVID outbreaks in Egyptian prisons. 

Amid mounting protests in Egypt, the group of bicameral lawmakers warn President Sisi that “the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience and other violations of human rights fundamentally undermines our countries’ mutual interests and values.” The U.S. lawmakers also note that “hostage-taking is illegal and unacceptable under any circumstances.”

Since assuming the presidency in 2014, Sisi has presided over systematic repression in Egypt, codifying new legal frameworks to criminalize internationally protected freedoms, including the freedom of association or assembly. Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been unjustly imprisoned in recent years, including journalists, activists, human rights defenders, LGBTQ+ individuals, and others, many of whom remain in prison awaiting trial for periods far longer than the legal minimum of two years. 

“Even in the middle of a global pandemic, President Sisi continues to lock up prisoners in notoriously overcrowded, dangerous prisons,” said Rep. Khanna. “As the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign military financing, U.S. lawmakers have a special responsibility to press the Sisi government to free political prisoners and end its systematic human rights violations. President Sisi must release human rights activists, lawyers and other prisoners of conscience before they face a COVID-19 death sentence behind bars.” 

This letter highlights the mounting frustration across both chambers of the United States Congress with President Sisi’s glaring human rights violations. The signers of this bicameral letter comprise a diverse group of members of Congress serving on the Appropriations, Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, and play an important role in setting the tone for the future of the strong bilateral U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

Specifically, the Khanna-McGovern-Brown bicameral letter calls for the release of political activists Ramy Shaath, Zyad el Elaimy, and Alaa Abdel Fattah; human rights lawyers Mohamed el Baqer and Mahienour el Massry; journalists Esraa Abdel Fattah and Solafa Magdy and other unjustly detained prisoners of conscience facing life-and-death risks in Egyptian prisons.

“The actions of President Sisi’s government, accosting and detaining political prisoners, was unconscionable even before the global public health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and now his administration’s human rights violations could result in detainees’ deaths,” said Sen. Brown. “Each day that passes presents a heightened risk of infection for political prisoners in Egypt who have been detained unjustly. We have a collective responsibility to protect and support Egyptian human rights defenders, peaceful political activists, and other prisoners of conscience and I am proud to stand with Reps. Khanna and McGovern in calling on President Sisi to release them immediately.”
 
“The unjust detention of Egyptian human rights defenders, peaceful political activists, and other prisoners of conscience is in direct opposition to the rights and freedoms enshrined in Egyptian and American law,” said Rep. McGovern. “We are deeply disturbed that in the middle of a pandemic, the Egyptian Government continues to wrongfully hold these political prisoners in overcrowded prisons – places where we know COVID-19 can spread like wildfire and cause severe illness and death. As major recipients of U.S. military aid, the Egyptian Government and President Sisi ought to know that their actions are hurting the relationship between our two countries. And they need to release these political prisoners at once.”
 

House Signatories: James P. McGovern (MA-2), Don Beyer (VA-8), Earl Blumenauer (OR-3), André Carson (IN-7), Joaquin Castro (TX-20), David Cicilline (RI-01), Steve Cohen (TN-09), Gerald E. Connolly (VA-11), Jim Cooper (TN-05), Ted Deutch (FL-22), Veronica Escobar (TX-16), Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), Jesús “Chuy” García (IL-04), Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-03), Deb Haaland (NM-01), Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30), Andy Kim (NJ-03), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Ted Lieu (CA-33), Alan Lowenthal (CA-47), Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), Betty McCollum (MN-04), Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Ilhan Omar (MN-05), Chellie Pingree (ME-01), Katie Porter (CA-45), Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), David Price (NC-04), Jamie Raskin (MD-08), Harley Rouda (CA-48), Bobby L. Rush (IL-01), Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11), Brad Sherman (CA-30), Adam Smith (WA-09), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), David Trone (MD-06), Nydia M. Velázquez (NY-07), Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12), Susan Wild (PA-07)

Senate Signatories: Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Bob Casey (D-PA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

The bill is endorsed by Amnesty International USA, Freedom Initiative, Human Rights Watch, Project on Middle East Democracy, Churches for Middle East Peace. 

The full text of the letter is available here and below. It will be sent on October 19, 2020.

 

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About the Office

Congressman Khanna represents the 17th District of California, which covers communities in Silicon Valley. Visit his website at khanna.house.gov. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @RepRoKhanna.

 

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October 19, 2020

President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi

Arab Republic of Egypt Cairo, Egypt

 

Dear President Al-Sisi:

We write to strongly urge you to immediately release human rights defenders, lawyers, political activists, and other prisoners of conscience in Egypt before their wrongful imprisonment becomes a death sentence due to the coronavirus pandemic.

We are troubled that political activist Ramy Shaath has been held for more than a year in pre-trial detention, and that former parliamentarian Zyad el Elaimy and others detained per case no. 930 of 2019 are imprisoned for seeking to exercise their right to peaceful political participation.

We note the continued arbitrary detention of activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and his sister Sanaa Seif, detained since June 2020 on unfounded charges. Ms. Seif was taken by plainclothes security forces in front of the Public Prosecutor’s office when she and her family attempted to lodge a complaint about an assault the family reportedly suffered in front of Tora prison, as they waited to receive a letter from her brother. Human rights lawyers Mohamed el Baqer, Mahienour el Massry, and Haitham Mohamedeen, former party leader Khaled Dawoud, researchers Ibrahim Ezz-Eldin, Patrick George Zaki, Hazem Hosny, journalists Esraa Abdel Fattah, Solafa Magdy, Hossam al-Sayyad, Mustafa Al-Khateeb and Mahmoud Hussein, and Ramy Kamel, a Coptic Christian activist, are all behind bars. These are only a few of the many prisoners of conscience facing life-threatening health risks in Egyptian prisons.

American citizens and individuals with strong ties to the United States have also been unjustly imprisoned in Egypt and face increased risk due to the pandemic. We welcome your government’s decision to release Reem Mohamed Desouky last May and Mohamed Amashah in July. However, Desouky’s brother Nour, who was arrested when he went to visit her, remains in prison, as does dual citizen Khaled Hassan who should either be released or afforded a fair, public trial in a civilian court. Recently, several members of the extended family of former prisoner of conscience Mohamed Soltan have been arbitrarily detained in apparent retaliation for his decision to file a U.S. lawsuit against an official alleged to be responsible for his wrongful imprisonment and torture.  Hostage-taking is illegal and unacceptable under any circumstances. 

We were appalled by the deaths in custody this year of U.S. citizen Mustafa Kassem and filmmaker Shady Habash. Mr. Kassem, who was diabetic, died after his health deteriorated. Mr. Habash died after the prison administration delayed his transfer for outside treatment. In addition, prominent journalist Mohamed Monir, age 65, contracted COVID-19 in pre-trial detention and was released after falling ill in custody, only to die in an isolation unit 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. That risk is compounded now that new reports of COVID-19 cases among prison workers and detainees have emerged.

A joint statement issued by the World Health Organization, the UNODC, the OHCHR, and UNAIDS called for the release of pre-trial detainees and prisoners with underlying health conditions in order to mitigate overcrowding in prisons. OHCHR reiterated this call directly to your government to release those held in pre-trial detention, as well as prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes. These calls follow a statement earlier this year from sixty-six French parliamentarians requesting the release of human rights defenders arbitrarily detained in Egypt.

Upholding fundamental rights and freedoms as enshrined in the U.S. and Egyptian constitutions and international law is essential to the U.S.-Egyptian partnership, as well as to state-society relations that form the bedrock of legitimate and stable governance. The wrongful imprisonment of prisoners of conscience and other gross violations of human rights fundamentally undermine that partnership and those relations. 

We therefore urge you to immediately and unconditionally release those prisoners whose cases we have cited, and all other prisoners of conscience unjustly detained for exercising their fundamental human rights. These are people who should never have been imprisoned in the first place. We further strongly urge you to reserve the use of pretrial detention as a measure of last resort and to cease the repeated detention of journalists, political activists, and human rights defenders, in accordance with recommendations from the United Nations and others regarding best practices for reducing life-threatening overcrowding in prisons during a pandemic. We also urge you to end reprisals against human rights defenders advocating for the release of political prisoners. This includes Bahey eldin Hassan, one of Egypt’s most prominent human rights defenders, who recently received a 15-year jail sentence in absentia for his peaceful criticism of the Egyptian government.

We ask that you treat this request with the seriousness and urgency with which we make it. We look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

             
Ro Khanna                                      James P. McGovern                    Sherrod Brown
Member of Congress                      Member of Congress                    U.S. Senator