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Congress members call for sanctions against Egypt over LI man's prison death

Moustafa Kassem, 53, of Bethpage, died while on

Moustafa Kassem, 53, of Bethpage, died while on a hunger strike in an Egyptian prison. Credit: Mostafa Ahmed

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are calling for sanctions against Egypt three days after a Bethpage man died in custody in Cairo while on a hunger strike.

Moustafa Kassem had been held for six years in an Egyptian prison. When he was arrested, he was beaten by military authorities during a crackdown on dissent, officials have said.

“It’s disgraceful at every level,” said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who has lobbied the White House and federal Department of State for Kassem’s release for years and said he was incredulous that Egypt could not release a citizen of perhaps its strongest ally — the United States.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “Just in dollars and cents, all the money we give them and weaponry, and they couldn’t release an American citizen from jail.”

Kassem, 53, was a native of Egypt and a naturalized U.S. citizen.

King spoke as U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), sent a letter to President Donald Trump calling for sanctions.

“Mustafa Kassem’s death was a needless tragedy, after years of unconscionable mistreatment at the hands of Egyptian authorities,” the letter said. “He was arrested at a shopping center, beaten after showing his U.S. passport, detained, and denied critical access to medicine and medical care. He was in “pretrial” detention for over five years before being convicted of trying to overthrow the Sisi government in a sham mass trial with 738 other defendants, violating all standards of due process.”

 It continued: “Egyptian officials never presented any evidence implicating Kassem — because there was none. These actions against a U.S. citizen are particularly egregious, as the United States provides approximately $1.4 billion in foreign assistance to Egypt annually.”

The lawmakers said sanctions should be considered against Egyptian officials. 

Officials at the State Department could not be reached for comment on the sanctions Thursday. Representatives of the Egyptian embassy in Washington and at the mission to the UN in New York could not be reached for comment.

Kassem, who went on a hunger strike in September 2018 to protest his conviction and 15-year prison term, had written at least two letters to Trump, his March 8, 2019, letter saying that he was “cognizant that such a strike may cost me my life.”

Kassem and his family said that the former auto shop owner was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was arrested by Egyptian authorities during a crackdown on dissent following the overthrow in 2013 of then-Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

 Military forces detained and dispersed thousands of people assembled at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on Aug. 14, 2013, and broke up a protest camp because they were supporting Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was elected in June 2012, according to media and independent expert reports.

Morsi rose to the top of Egyptian politics and was elected president in June 2012 in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the wave of anti-authoritarian protests across the Middle East that toppled several longtime leaders, including Hosni Mubarak, who was president of Egypt for three decades until he stepped down in February 2011 in response to popular demand.

But Morsi himself, considered the first democratically elected Egyptian president, was overthrown a year later by military commanders — including then-General Sisi — and jailed. The Muslim Brotherhood is now outlawed, and Morsi himself collapsed and died last June as he stood on trial in a Cairo courtroom.

Human Rights Watch issued a report one year after the violent crackdown on dissidents in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, which occurred several weeks after Morsi’s ouster, and 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.” The report said between 817 and 1,000 people were killed.

Kassem’s brother-in-law, Mostafa Ahmed of Bethpage, who was with Kassem when he was detained, said the pair were in Egypt at the time of his arrest to visit Kassem’s wife and children, and that neither of them played a role in the protests. 

Relatives 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 during a sweep when the crackdown spread far beyond the square.

Ahmed has said that Kassem showed his U.S. passport to the authorities and they proceeded to beat him before detaining him.

In September 2018, Kassem was convicted along with over 700 other defendants and sentenced to 15 years in prison — some were given death sentences — in a trial that had been criticized by human rights groups and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.