Family of American who died in Egypt prison seeking US response, Trump condolences

Written by on February 13, 2020

Kassem Family(NEW YORK) — The family of an American citizen who died in an Egyptian prison said they are disappointed that they haven’t heard from President Donald Trump or other senior officials in his administration, they said in a new statement.

Mustafa Kassem, who would have been 55 years old on Tuesday, died after being imprisoned for over six years on trumped-up charges. The father of two and New York City taxi driver had been on a hunger strike since September 2018 to raise awareness for his case and to plead for Trump’s help in securing his release.

Kassem died on Jan. 10 from heart failure while serving a 15-year sentence after he was tried in a mass trial with more than 700 co-defendants and without any individual evidence presented against him.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have called for sanctions against Egypt’s government and a review of U.S. foreign aid to the country. Kassem’s family have also blamed the Trump administration for his death.

“We have heard nothing from President Trump. No words of sympathy. No concern. No prayers. No condolences,” his family said in a statement Monday.

“President Trump abandoned Mustafa in life, and Mustafa died. Now he is abandoning Mustafa in death. We are extremely disappointed,” they added.

Trump has not tweeted or spoken about his death. National security adviser Robert O’Brien, who previously served as special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, said Monday that the administration “always raise(s) cases of Americans detained abroad. … Unfortunately, we’re not always 100 percent successful, but we always do our best.”

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters last month — days after Kassem’s death — that she wasn’t aware of his case and didn’t “want to talk about that. I just heard it from you.”

The State Department said on Jan. 19 that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed outrage over his “pointless and tragic death” during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, although Egypt’s readout makes no mention of the case.

The Kassem family has been in touch with U.S. embassy officials and consular officers in Egypt, who have been “helpful in getting the family through this very rough period,” according to Kassem’s lawyer Praveen Madhiraju. But they have not heard directly from any senior officials.

While Kassem was still alive, it was unclear how hard the administration pressed his case. After a December meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, the State Department said Pompeo highlighted Kassem’s case, but the top U.S. diplomat declined to say whether he raised detained Americans when in Cairo in January 2019.

Trump has a warm relationship with the Egyptian president, whom he has praised as a “great friend” despite el-Sisi’s violent crackdown on democracy, political opposition groups and civil society organizations and his changes to Egyptian law to extend his rule.

A dual American and Egyptian citizen, Kassem was arrested in the early days of that crackdown in August 2013. While out to exchange money and shop the night before returning to the U.S., according to Madhiraju, Kassem was arrested and accused of participating in protests against el-Sisi’s takeover of the Egyptian government. That night, el-Sisi — then a general — crushed a sit-in protest in support of the former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by el-Sisi and the military one month earlier after mass protests against his own rule. Security forces’ crackdown that night killed more than 800 people, according to human rights groups, with hundreds detained.

In April 2017, Trump and el-Sisi’s relationship appeared to help to secure the release of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker and social activist, and her husband. Her release under el-Sisi’s rule gave Kassem’s family hope, but after Kassem was convicted of trying to overthrow the government and sentenced in September 2018, he turned to desperate measures — a hunger strike.

“I am losing my will and don’t know how else to get your attention,” he wrote in letters to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the time, adding that while he knows “full well that I may not survive,” he had no choice.

“Mustafa believed that his citizenship would protect him. He believed President Trump had the ability to save him,” his family said Monday.

A senior State Department official said on Jan. 13 that it was “premature” to talk about repercussions for el-Sisi’s government. But Madhiraju said they have seen “no real indication that the administration will take any action.” Instead, he said they “feel more confident that something will come from Congress. But the administration has not earned that confidence.”

That confidence comes from several lawmakers’ public calls for sanctions on or U.S. visa bans for el-Sisi’s government.

“There is no excuse for what happened in this situation,” Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., who was Kassem’s representative and advocated for his release, said days after Kassem’s death. “It’s an absolute disgrace.”

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