When he died Monday of apparent heart failure, after more than six years in prison with negligent medical care, Kassem’s faith in American power had collapsed. American political influencers called for his release, but never applied any real pressure, such as the threat of sanctions. The authoritarian leader of Egypt, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, after all, is a key ally of the United States.
Finally, Kassem saw no choice but to start a hunger strike in September 2018. In a letter taken from prison at that time, he begged President Trump to help him, noting that they were fellow New Yorkers. “I am putting my life in your hands,” wrote the father of two young children.
His death raises serious doubts about the Trump administration’s ability to help half a dozen Americans still in Egyptian jails, the vast majority for weak reasons, according to human rights activists, not to mention the thousands of other political detainees. They experience similarly bad conditions. There are currently more than 300 prisoners on hunger strike.
Kassem’s death is the last sign of the extent to which the Sissi regime has been emboldened in part by the Trump administration’s policy, at least publicly, of keeping silent about human rights abuses in Egypt.
Since Trump’s visit to the Middle East in May 2017, where he made it clear that human rights would not be a priority for his administration in his relations with regional allies, abuses have increased.
“This sad story is reflected very poorly in both Egypt and the United States,” tweeted Michael Hanna, a Middle East expert at The Century Foundation. “And the bilateral relationship remains dysfunctional and without direction.”
Today, Sissi has deepened its control over the country, establishing the most authoritarian regime in modern Egyptian history, human rights activists say. In an effort to silence dissent and freedom of expression, tens of thousands of activists, journalists and political opponents have been arrested. More than 500 websites considered critical of the regime have been closed. Extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances of activists continue, as well as torture, say human rights groups.
Although the abuses have increased, Trump has continued to embrace Sissi, even declaring him his “favorite dictator.” He invited Sissi to the White House, which his predecessor Barack Obama never did largely due to Egypt’s poor human rights record. In fact, previous US administrations. UU. They often used the $ 1.3 billion in US military aid. UU. That Egypt receives annually as a lever to press for democratic reforms and freedoms.
“Like thousands of political prisoners in the country, he should never have been arrested,” tweeted US Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “remind Egypt that military aid is legally linked to the release of prisoners, including at least 6 US citizens. “
From Bethpage, New York, Kassem was visiting relatives in his native Cairo in the summer of 2013. He was arrested on August 14, 2013, the day the Egyptian authorities assaulted a sit-in by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood party in Rabaa Square in Cairo. , killing up to 1,000 people, according to human rights groups.
Kassem seems to have been an involuntary victim: he was arrested at a nearby mall, where he had gone to exchange money shortly before his return to the United States, according to the Freedom Initiative, a group that advocates for Egyptian political prisoners.
“After showing his US passport, the soldiers beat him and detained him, then transferred him to law enforcement officials who continued this harsh treatment,” said Pretrial Rights International, a nonprofit organization he represented on Monday. to Kassem. “A diabetic with a heart condition, prison officials limited access to necessary medications and medical care throughout his detention. He remained in pretrial detention for more than five years.”
The late Senator John McCain (Republican of Arizona) asked Trump to urge Egypt to free Kassem. In January 2018, after a visit to Cairo, Vice President Pence told reporters that he had spoken with Sissi about the imprisonment of Kassem, saying that Sissi had “assured” him that “he would give that very serious attention.”
However, Kassem was sentenced and sentenced to 15 years in jail in a mass trial at the end of 2018, charged along with another 738 accused of trying to overthrow the Sissi government. The procedures, human rights activists said, violated all standards of due and fair process. No evidence was ever submitted that directly involved Kassem, they said.
On the day of his sentence, Kassem began a “liquid hunger strike only,” said Pretrial Rights International. Last Thursday, the group said, Kassem “stopped drinking fluids and shortly thereafter was transferred to a local hospital, where he died” Monday afternoon.
Senior US officials UU. They were aware of the deterioration of Kassem’s state. In June, the Egyptian Working Group, a bipartisan group of diplomats and foreign affairs experts, sent a letter to Pompeo, highlighting the poor medical care of political detainees by the Egyptian authorities. They especially stressed that Kassem “is in imminent danger of death.”
The sudden death of former President Mohamed Morsi in June was also a wake-up call to help Kassem and other political detainees.
Morsi, the first democratically elected head of state of Egypt who was overthrown in a 2013 military coup designed by Sissi, was held for six years in prison under extremely harsh conditions, human rights activists and their families said, including denial of treatment Doctor for your diabetes. and other diseases The Egyptian government had denied the accusations.
In July, Pompeo responded to the Working Group’s letter, saying that “the safety and welfare of US citizens abroad, including detainees, has been a priority for me.”
He noted that two US citizens arrested by Egypt were released under the Trump administration. In 2017, humanitarian worker Aya Hijazi was released after Trump pressured Sissi. And the following year, Ahmed Etiwy, a university student, was released after Pence urged his release.
But other Americans remain jailed for what activists describe as doubtful charges. Khaled Hassan, a limousine driver from New York, has been jailed since January 2018 on charges of joining an Islamic State affiliate. Hassan has denied the accusations, saying he was in Egypt to visit relatives when he was arrested by security agents.
While in custody, security forces allegedly beat Hassan, applied electric shocks and raped him twice, Human Rights Watch said. In July, Hassan attempted suicide inside the famous Tora prison in Cairo, the group said.
Last year, Pennsylvania teacher Reem Mohamed Desouky was jailed after landing in Cairo to visit relatives. Egyptian authorities accused Desouky of managing social media accounts considered critical of the regime.
Carol Morello in Washington and Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.