A Bethpage man who was sentenced to 15 years in an Egyptian prison for allegedly supporting a government that was overthrown in 2013 is in the fourth month of a hunger strike that his family worries could end his life, his local relatives said.
Relatives of Moustafa Kassem, 53, who has U.S. and Egyptian citizenship, say he was wrongfully swept up during a wide-reaching military crackdown in August 2013 and that he is now protesting his incarceration by refusing to eat.
“Either I go out in a coffin or I go out free,” he said, according to his brother-in-law Mostafa Ahmed of Bethpage, who was with Kassem when he was detained and last saw him at the start of his hunger strike in September.
The family hopes that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will raise the issue with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during a visit to Cairo this month, when Pompeo will deliver a speech on the U.S. role in the Middle East.
“He needs one guy, Pompeo or [Vice President Mike] Pence, just one guy to stand up and say it — release this guy,” Ahmed said. “Just one or two words to save his life. Give them an order and tell them to release this guy.”
Kassem’s Washington-based attorney, Praveen Madhiraju of Pretrial Rights International, and family members said that Kassem, who ran an auto parts shop with Ahmed in Bay Shore, is a diabetic and is ill.
They said he has consumed only liquids since he was sentenced on Sept. 8 after a trial that, according to media reports, involved about 800 defendants. Some defendants were sentenced to death.
“He’s lost all the fat on his body,” Ahmed said, adding that until he became dangerously weak, Kassem had been required to perform manual labor in the prison. “He’s going to damage himself badly. He also has heart problems and skin cancer, too.”
Kassem's lengthy sentence was handed down a day after the U.S. announced it was providing $1.2 billion in military aid to Sisi.
“The United States needs to show that it will not stand nor give up on U.S. citizens being targeted abroad,” Madhiraju said.
State Department officials on Thursday said they were worried about Kassem's plight.
"We are deeply concerned by the conviction and sentencing of U.S. citizen Moustafa Kassem," said an official, who echoed statements made at a news conference on Sept. 11 by then-State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, who has been nominated by President Donald Trump to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "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. The Department of State takes seriously its responsibilities to assist U.S. citizens abroad; we will continue providing appropriate consular services."
The Egyptian embassy did not return a call or email for comment.
Military forces cracked down on thousands of people assembled at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on Aug. 14, 2013, and broke up a protest camp because they were supporting the government of Mohamed 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 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 was overthrown a year later by military commanders — including then-General Sisi — and jailed. The Muslim Brotherhood is now outlawed.
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 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.
“He is innocent, and he didn’t do anything and they sentenced him after they detained him for five years,” Ahmed said. “If he doesn’t get out in a month from now, he will be dead.”