Two Long Island members of Congress on opposite sides of the political aisle are asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to press Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to release a Bethpage man who has been on a hunger strike since he was sentenced to 15 years in an Egyptian prison.
Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) sent a letter to Pompeo Tuesday urging him to use his visit to Cairo Thursday to help gain the release of Moustafa Kassem, 53, an auto shop owner who was sentenced for allegedly supporting a government that was overthrown in 2013. Relatives of Kassem, who has U.S. and Egyptian citizenship, said he was wrongfully swept up during a wide-reaching military crackdown on dissenters in Egypt.
“Mr. Kassem has been on a hunger strike since his sentencing in September,” read the letter from King and Suozzi, who both represent portions of Bethpage. “We ask that you raise Mr. Kassem’s case with Egyptian authorities on your upcoming visit to the region and advocate for his release.”
No one from the State Department could be reached Tuesday.
The letter, sent by King's office, buoyed the hopes of Kassem's relatives, who have been hoping the United States government would get more involved in a matter that concerns one of the country’s close international partners. The letter comes about a year after Vice President Mike Pence raised the issue during a visit to Cairo, King said.
President Donald Trump's administration authorized the release of some $1.2 billion in military aid to Egypt a day before Kassem and many others were sentenced in a trial that prosecuted over 700 defendants, some of whom received death sentences.
“I think it’s very good news and a very good step, and hopefully it helps to get him released,” said Mostafa Ahmed, Kassem’s brother-in-law, who was with Kassem when he was arrested in August 2013. “We will pray until this happens.”
Ahmed said Kassem’s health has deteriorated rapidly as he has been on a solely liquid diet for four months. He also has diabetes and other ailments that require medical attention.
“We’ve been on this case probably for the past five years,” King said in a telephone interview. “It’s really a tragic case. . . Any American being held in a foreign country is tragic to me, but the fact is that this is someone from Long Island and he’s in a foreign jail. You can only wonder what kind of treatment he’s getting.”
Said Suozzi: “I’m always going to do whatever I can to support my constituents, especially if they are in harm’s way. I can’t imagine how much this family is suffering, especially Mr. Kassem himself.”
Egyptian officials at the embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment.
Kassem’s family said he is an innocent victim who was caught up in a massive crackdown on dissent in the wake of a coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, who was elected president of Egypt after the ouster of longtime authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak stepped down in February 2011 after several days of protest stemming from the Arab Spring demonstrations that toppled several longtime leaders in the Middle East.
Morsi was elected in June 2012 and served until he was ousted in July 2013 by military commanders — including then-General Sisi — and jailed.
Military forces cracked down on thousands of people assembled at Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on Aug. 14, 2013, and broke up a protest camp in support of Morsi and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, according to media and independent expert reports.
The Muslim Brotherhood is now outlawed.
Human Rights Watch issued a report one year later that said the “indiscriminate and deliberate use of lethal force resulted in one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history,” adding that between 817 and 1,000 people were killed.
Kassem’s family said he was in Egypt at the time of his arrest to visit his wife and children and played no role in the protests. They said Kassem, who was due to fly back to the United States 12 days later, had gone to a shopping mall to change currency but was captured when the crackdown spread far beyond the square.
Ahmed said Kassem showed his U.S. passport to the authorities and they proceeded to beat him before detaining him.