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Lawmakers Allege Egyptian Interference in Torture Suit

A House letter calls the arrests of an Egyptian American human rights advocate’s family a bid to “undermine” the U.S. judicial process.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on June 3, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on June 3, 2015. Adam Berry/Getty Images

House lawmakers are accusing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of an attack on the U.S. judicial system, according to a letter obtained by Foreign Policy, after authorities arrested family members of an Egyptian American human rights advocate, jailings perceived as an attempt to derail U.S. litigation against high-ranking officials.

The move comes as part of a public and private lobbying effort from U.S. lawmakers to force Egypt to release the father and cousins of Mohamed Soltan, a human rights advocate who spent two years in jail in Egypt. His family members were detained after Soltan filed a lawsuit in June accusing former Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi of ordering his arrest in 2013 and life sentence in prison. (He was later released and returned to the United States.)

In the letter led by Rep. Tom Malinowski, lawmakers are calling on Sisi and Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Yasser Reda to release Soltan’s family members and to reaffirm Soltan’s right to sue Beblawi under U.S. law. The lawmakers deemed the arrests a “transparent attempt to interfere with and undermine a judicial process in the United States.”

Egypt’s apparent reprisal came just days after Soltan’s suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Soltan accuses Egyptian officials, including Beblawi, of “attempted extrajudicial killing,” citing torture and abuse during the 21 months he spent in an Egyptian prison. 

Soltan’s cousins have been detained since June 15, according to Human Rights Watch. Lawmakers said the actions by Egyptian security forces “can only be interpreted as an effort to intimidate [Soltan] into dropping” the lawsuit. Sens. Chris Coons and Marco Rubio sent a private letter to Reda urging Egypt to “halt its harassment of the Soltan family,” Sean Coit, a spokesperson for Coons, told Foreign Policy

Soltan’s father, a prominent member of the government of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Mohamed Morsi, who briefly ruled Egypt after the Arab Spring, was imprisoned alongside him. Around two weeks ago, Soltan found out that his father had been taken for interrogation. His whereabouts are unknown.

While foreign leaders are immune from civil suits in U.S. courts under most circumstances, Beblawi recently moved to McLean, Virginia, after joining the executive board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). That allowed Soltan to bring a lawsuit against him under the Torture Victim Protection Act, a statute that allows U.S. litigation against foreign officials accused of torture or extrajudicial killing. 

Egypt has pushed back, retaining American lawyers and asking the State Department to grant Beblawi diplomatic immunity as a representative to the IMF, since the allegations occurred during his time as Egypt’s prime minister. The lawsuit also names Sisi and Egypt’s current intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, as liable to be sued if they travel to the United States, along with three former interior and security ministry leaders. 

“It’s outrageous that they would try to protect a former government official from his responsibility for torture,” Eric Lewis, Soltan’s lawyer, told Foreign Policy. “Torture is never a legitimate act of any sovereign government. So to say well, ‘Oh, we tortured, and he was prime minister, and therefore it’s authorized’—you can’t authorize torture. It is a breach of international law. It is basically an attempt by the Egyptians to call in a political favor and have the United States give a free pass to torture. That is contrary to law and contrary to our values.” Lewis said that other than the official lawsuit, he and his client have not been in contact with any representative from Egypt. 

In 2013, Soltan was shot in the arm and then arrested after Beblawi authorized a crackdown by security forces against Morsi supporters. He was one of the tens of thousands of political prisoners arrested as a result of Beblawi’s campaign. He was eventually released in 2015 after an appeal from the Obama administration. 

Despite receiving $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid, Egypt has become known for its frequent human rights abuses, including violent censorship of the press and brutal attacks against religious minorities and its LGBT population. A 2019 State Department report on human rights conditions in Egypt found that the country frequently committed abuses including arbitrary killings by its government and forced disappearances. 

While Egypt’s detentions of American citizens have strained U.S.-Egyptian relations recently, the Trump administration has repeatedly avoided challenging Cairo over perceived human rights abuses. After the January death of Mustafa Kassem in an Egyptian prison, a dual American and Egyptian citizen, the State Department considered cutting $300 million of its $1.3 billion aid to Egypt, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has not moved to do so. President Donald Trump has also frequently praised Sisi, calling the Egyptian leader “my favorite dictator.” 

But as the coronavirus has continued to spread, members of Congress have repeatedly called on Pompeo to urge the release of American citizens incarcerated in Egypt, amid fears of poor health conditions inside Egyptian prisons. An Egyptian human rights organization reported that 245 detainees died in prison in 2018 from medical neglect.

Yet the response from the Trump administration to the detention of Soltan’s family has not been one of outright condemnation. In response to the arrests of Soltan’s family, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs released a tweet saying, “We are concerned about reports that relatives of U.S. citizen and former detainee Mohammad Soltan are facing acts of intimidation in #Egypt. We will continue to monitor the situation and take seriously all allegations of harassment and intimidation.” Lewis said he is currently talking to the State Department to try to secure the release of Soltan’s family.

“The only coherence coming from the administration is that they like Sisi [and] they’re not too interested in getting involved in rights issues other than bringing U.S. citizens home,” said Allison McManus, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, a Washington think tank. 

“That’s what this administration’s policy has been in the Middle East: not rocking the boat with allies despite their behavior. If it’s not Iran, it’s OK.”

Darcy Palder is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @DPalder

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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