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Bethpage man imprisoned in Egypt appeals again to Trump

Moustafa Kassem, 53, of Bethpage.

Moustafa Kassem, 53, of Bethpage. Credit: Mostafa Ahmed

The Bethpage man who launched a hunger strike overseas after he was sentenced to 15 years in an Egyptian prison last September has penned another letter to President Donald Trump, urging him to demand his counterpart release the former auto shop owner before he dies. 

Moustafa Kassem, 53, wrote in a letter dated March 8 that he was “cognizant that such a strike may cost me my life,” in the handwritten note on ruled notebook paper, his second letter to Trump since he was sentenced in September for allegedly supporting a government that was overthrown in July 2013.

But relatives of Kassem, who has U.S. and Egyptian citizenship, have said he was wrongfully swept up during a wide-reaching military crackdown on dissenters in Egypt’s capital, Cairo, on Aug. 14, 2013.

He was sentenced after a trial that prosecuted over 700 defendants, some of whom received death sentences.

“I am confident that you are eager to save every American life,” Kassem’s letter continued. “I hope that my words can make their way to you as you are the only one who can secure my freedom and help me to reunite with my wife and two children.”

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) also wrote an accompanying letter to Trump — one of several letters in his efforts to persuade the Trump administration to intervene on behalf of one of the lawmaker’s constituents and urge Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to let Kassem go.

“I understand from those who have visited Mr. Kassem since my last letter that he appears significantly thinner, shakier, and paler,” King wrote in his note to Trump. “I also understand that he may have lost consciousness on at least one occasion and that he has been taken to the hospital for insulin injections due to widely varying blood sugar. I again request that you contact President Sisi urging him to immediately return Mr. Kassem to the United States.”

The White House has not yet responded to a request for comment on the case, but State Department officials have said they are "deeply concerned" about Kassem.

"Mr. Kassem's case has been raised repeatedly with the Egyptian government, and we remain in communication with Mr. Kassem and his attorney about the case," a State Department official said last month. "The Department of State takes seriously its responsibilities to assist U.S. citizens abroad; we will continue providing appropriate consular services."

In January, King and Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who also represents Bethpage, co-signed a letter urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the eve of his travel to Cairo in January to “raise Mr. Kassem’s case with Egyptian authorities on your upcoming visit to the region and advocate for his release.”

Praveen Madhiraju, the Kassem family’s Washington-based attorney, said Trump has touted his record for securing the release of Americans who become entangled in legal systems abroad, but that he has not yet come through for Kassem.

“Now in his sixth month of a liquid-only hunger strike, Mustafa can't wait for Trump's boast to be proven false,” Madhiraju said, adding that several prominent American legislators including the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Vice President Mike Pence have lobbied for Kassem’s release either through letters or personal advocacy. “As his latest letter suggests, Mustafa's health continues to be dire. The president must act now to secure Mustafa's release.”

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 Mohammed 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-Gen. 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.

That’s when, Kassem’s family said, he was in Egypt to visit his wife and children. Relatives said Kassem played no role in the protests but was arrested after a confrontation with security forces. 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 beyond the square.

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