CAIRO, Egypt (UPI) — An American citizen imprisoned in Egypt for more than six years under a controversial anti-protest law died Monday following a hunger strike protesting his conviction, the State Department said.
Mustafa Kassem, a 54-year-old diabetic, died of heart failure following a lengthy hunger strike, said non-profit Pretrial Rights International, which represented Kassem.
Assistant Secretary for Eastern Affairs David Schenker confirmed Kassem’s death during a press briefing in Washington.
“His death in custody was needless, tragic and avoidable,” he said. “We send our sincere condolences to Mr. Kassem’s wife and family at his painful time.”
Kassem, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Egypt, was arrested in August 2013 during a trip to visit family in his native country, which was undergoing political turmoil.
That summer, the military took control of the country by ousting elected president and high-ranking member of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Morsi amid mass protests.
According to Human Rights Watch, the military arrested and detained some 22,000 people since Morsi’s deposition in July.
Pretrial Rights International said Kassem was arrested at a Cairo shopping center after Army officials asked him for identification.
“After showing his U.S. passport, soldiers beat and detained him, later transferring him to law enforcement officials who continued this harsh treatment,” the nonprofit said. “A diabetic with a heart condition, prison officials limited access to necessary medications and medical care for the entirety of his detention.”
Kassem remained in pretrial detention for five years until he was convicted on Sept. 8, 2018, along with more than 700 codefendants without individualized evidence presented against him and sentenced to 15 years in jail, it said.
“On that day, he began a liquid-only hunger strike. Last Thursday, he ceased taking liquids and was shortly thereafter transferred to a local hospital, where he passed,” the organization said.
In the years following his detention, the United States has said it’s applied pressure on Egypt concerning its imprisonment of American citizens.
In January 2018, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters at Cairo International Airport following discussion with President Al Sisi, who succeeded Morsi, that he raised the detention of Kassem and another U.S. citizen, Ahmed Etiwy.
“President Al Sisi assured me that he would give that very serious attention, in both cases. I told him we’d like to see those American citizens restored to their families and restored to our country,” he said.
Pompeo responded that the “safety and well-being of U.S. citizens overseas, including those detained, has been a top priority” and that he will continue to work to ensure they are treated humanely and fairly.
Most recently in the days before Christmas, Schenker told reporters Pompeo met with Egypt’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry several times over the year and raised concerns over “Americans detained in Egypt, including Moustafa Kassem.”
Asked if the United States was considering penalizing the Sisi government for Kassem’s death, a senior State Department official said Monday it’s “still premature” to discuss.
“Yes, we are really concerned about this and we’re going to talk about it, about what we’re going to do,” the official said. “We haven’t decided yet.”
Kassem is survived by his wife and two young children, Pretrial Rights International said.
Reporting by Darryl Coote
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